The House of Representatives foreign affairs committee has approved a non-binding resolution calling the massacre of Armenians nearly a century ago a genocide. The vote was 27 to 21. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, President Bush and senior officials in his administration strongly oppose the measure, saying it will damage relations with Turkey and set back U.S. efforts in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
Members of Congress were subjected to two public relations campaigns, one financed by the Turkish government, the other by Armenian-American and other groups supporting the measure.
Turkey has long insisted that Armenians killed during World War I and the years immediately following perished because of clashes stemming from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire rather than from a genocide campaign.
In full page statements published in major U.S. newspapers, the Turkish government characterized the resolution, which would be non-binding if Congress were to pass it, as a biased interpretation of tragedies involving Armenians in the early 20th century.
Armenian-American groups asserted that the resolution would be an important gesture by the U.S. Congress to recognize what they call the fact of the Armenian genocide.
President Bush received a letter from Turkey's president Abdullah Gul warning of harm to bilateral relations if the resolution moves forward in Congress, a view shared by a number of former U.S. secretaries of state and others who appealed to Congress.
Mr. Bush used a White House statement to say that while Americans deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people, a resolution is not the way to address the issue.
"This resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings, and its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO, and the global war on terror," he said.
Speaking outside the White House, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed the comments, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates reflected concerns of U.S. military commanders about a potential backlash by Turkey affecting military supply lines.
"Passage of this resolution at this time would indeed be very problematic for everything that we are trying to do in the Middle East because we are very dependent on a good Turkish strategic ally to help with our efforts" said Rice.
"They believe clearly that access to airfield and to the roads and so on in Turkey would be very much put at risk if this resolution passes and the Turks react as strongly as we believe they will," Gates said.
Foreign affairs panel chairman Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, said lawmakers were faced with a difficult choice in what he called a vote of conscience.
"We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people and to condemn this historic nightmare through the use of the word genocide against the risk that it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the U.S. armed services to pay an even heavier price than they are now paying," he said.
Republicans Dan Burton and Chris Smith, took opposite views of the issue.
"The strongest ally in the area, and has been for over 50 years, is Turkey, and I just don't understand why we are going to cut our nose off and shoot ourselves in the foot at a time when we need this ally," Burton said.
The issue behind the resolution today is whether any government that denies a genocide, whether or not Congress has a responsibility to insist that our government at the very least acknowledges it. I believe that we do," said Smith.
There were also divisions among Democrats, such as California's Brad Sherman, and Florida's Robert Wexler.
"We cannot provide genocide-denial as one of the perks of friendship with the United States," Sherman said.
"It is clear that America can ill afford to lose the support of an ally as important as Turkey at this critical juncture," said Wexler.
Armenian genocide resolutions have been approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee in the past, but failed to make it to the full House and never passed through Congress as a whole.
The current measure has strong support from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met Wednesday with Turkey's Ambassador to the United States.
The Democratic leaders sought to assure him that the United States remains a strong ally of the Turkey and that the government in Ankara should not view the resolution as a reflection of the Turkish government or people. Congressman Lantos, meanwhile, says he will introduce a resolution next week on U.S.-Turkish friendship.
Democratic leaders intend to bring the Armenian genocide measure to the House floor next month, while a similar measure is pending in the Senate.