The Obama administration is urging a House panel not to offend Turkey by declaring that the Ottoman-era killing of Armenians was genocide. But the committee chairman pressed ahead Thursday.
The administration stepped in despite a campaign promise by President Barack Obama to brand as genocide the killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The vote by the congressional committee could alienate Turkey, which plays an important role for U.S. interests in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had spoken with Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman on Wednesday — the eve of the scheduled vote — and indicated that "further Congressional action could impede progress on normalization of relations" between Turkey and Armenia.
Hammer would not specify whether Clinton urged Berman to cancel Thursday's hearing or to vote against the resolution.
Still, Berman on Thursday urged fellow members of the committee to approve the resolution. The committee appeared likely to endorse it, sending it to the full House, where its prospects are uncertain.
"The Turks say passing this resolution could have terrible consequences for our bilateral relationship, and indeed perhaps there will be some consequences," Berman said. "But I believe that Turkey values its relations with the United States at least as much as we value our relations with Turkey."
The United States relies on Turkey as a key supply route for U.S. troops in Iraq and Turkey's troops serve in the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. The United States also is pressing Turkey, which holds a rotating seat in the U.N. Security Council, to support sanctions against Iran, Turkey's neighbor.
Hammer said Obama called President Abdullah Gul on Wednesday to express his appreciation for Turkey's efforts to normalize relations with Armenia.
The Foreign Affairs Committee approved a similar genocide measure in 2007, but it was not brought to the House floor for a vote following intensive pressure by then President George W. Bush.
Following the 2007 committee vote, Turkey promptly recalled its ambassador, and U.S. officials feared the Turks might cut off American access to a Turkish air base essential to operations in Iraq. After intensive lobbying by top Bush administration officials, the resolution was not considered by the full House.
On Thursday, a Turkish official suggested his country could again recall its ambassador if the congressional panel approves the resolution.
"All options are on the table," the government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will wait to see the result of the committee vote before deciding whether to bring the resolution before the full House.
Armenian American groups have for decades sought congressional affirmation of the killings as genocide. Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey says the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest, not genocide.
In April, Obama broke a campaign promise to brand the killings genocide in an annual White House statement on the day marking Armenian remembrance. Obama said that while he had not changed his personal views, he did not want to upset promising talks between Turkey and Armenia on improving relations and opening their border.
In October, Turkey and Armenia signed an agreement to normalize relations, but Turkey has yet to ratify it.
Associated Press writer Suzan Frazer contributed to this story from Ankara, Turkey.
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