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Genocide resolution still far from certain

Times Staff Writer

It was the year 2000, and Rep. George P. Radanovich was on his way to the Capitol, expecting the House to pass a long-debated resolution he was sponsoring to recognize the Armenian genocide almost a century ago.

But just as the Republican from Mariposa prepared to step onto the House floor, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called off the vote because President Clinton personally had warned him that the symbolic but emotion-charged resolution could damage national security. Turkey, an important U.S. ally, long has insisted that the deaths of about 1 million Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire were not acts of genocide.

Seven years later, however, with Congress in the hands of Democrats, the resolution’s backers believe they stand their best chance yet of winning passage -- even though the Bush administration, like previous Democratic and Republican administrations, is working hard to kill it.

Radanovich is predicting that the resolution’s fate once again will come down to a phone call between the president and the House speaker. This time the speaker is Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who as a member of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues has been a passionate supporter of the genocide resolution.

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But there’s a rub:

During almost 20 years representing the Bay Area, home to thousands of voters of Armenian descent, Pelosi has had a relatively free hand in deciding her position on the volatile issue. But today she comes at it as a leader of the Democratic Party and a high-profile player in the U.S. government.

She has shown, by her maneuvering on Iraq war funding and her recent visit to Syria, that she is not reluctant to take on the White House. And she has learned that Republicans will be quick to seize any opportunity to brand her a lightweight in foreign affairs.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Pelosi must now weigh the resolution “through a perspective she never did before.”

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Also in a bind

And the speaker is not the only one in a bind on the issue. The Israeli government and many of its U.S. supporters face similar crosscurrents because opposing genocide is at the core of the Jewish state, but Turkey is the closest thing to an ally Israel has in the Muslim world.

As a result, although its prospects are bright, the resolution is far from assured of passage.

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Radanovich predicted that if the leadership decided to bring it to the floor, President Bush would call Pelosi and ask her not to do so, in the interest of national security. Then, said Radanovich, usually a Bush ally, “Pelosi is going to have to make a choice: to agree with the president or respectfully disagree.” Radanovich said that he hoped she “respectfully disagrees” and puts the measure to a vote.

“If it gets to the floor,” he said, “it passes.”

Pelosi hasn’t signaled whether she will schedule a vote.

The resolution is supported by 191 House members, the most sponsors it has had in 20 years, according to the Armenian National Committee of America. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) backs it, as do more than a quarter of his colleagues. California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are among them.

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Mark Parris, a U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the Clinton administration who now is at the Brookings Institution, said that when the Democrats won control of Congress in November, “the Turks knew there was going to be a problem.”

Almost everyone, including the Turkish government, agrees that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in eastern Turkey between 1915 and 1918 as World War I and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire engulfed the region in turmoil. It’s how they perished that continues to stir ferocious disagreement.

Armenians, along with most historians and many Western governments, say more than 1 million died at the hands of Turkish forces -- victims of either murder or mass deportation that led hundreds of thousands to succumb to exposure and disease.

Turks say there was no government-sponsored program targeting Armenians. Rather, they insist, large numbers of Armenians -- and Turks -- died in the chaos of war and an uprising staged by Armenians seeking to capitalize on a government weakened by World War I.

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“There were numerous deaths on both sides, due to war, disease, hunger and civil strife,” the Turkish American Heritage Political Action Committee said in a recent letter to lawmakers.

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Not forgetting

Though the events lie far in the past, Armenians and Armenian Americans have worked hard to keep the memory alive. The Turkish government and the ultranationalists who are resurgent in that country have worked equally hard to keep the U.S. government from taking a position.

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Caught in the middle of the debate are Israel and its supporters.

“It’s a terrible predicament,” said David Twersky of the American Jewish Congress. “As Jews, we have a tremendous reverence for the moral imperatives of history. But then there is the aspect that no Muslim country is closer to Israel than Turkey. So we feel paralyzed by a set of conflicting emotions.”

Turkish officials say the renewed push to recognize an Armenian genocide could not come at a worse time.

The issue is so incendiary that even a symbolic recognition by Congress could embolden ultranationalists there to unleash enough anti-American sentiment to shut down important U.S. military bases and affect Washington’s position throughout the Middle East.

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Civilian and military leaders of the Turkish government, including Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, met at a Washington hotel in February with more than a dozen leaders of major Jewish organizations in an effort to prevent action on the resolution. Members of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee took part in the gathering.

“I believe the right thing for the Jewish community is to recognize the Armenian genocide as a fact, because virtually every historian and scholar of note in this area calls it a genocide,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “As friends of Turkey, we need to encourage them to just recognize the truth, honor the victims and be done with it. This would only enhance Turkey’s standing in the world.”

Other Jewish leaders, believing the security needs of the U.S. and Israel trump distant history, are siding with Turkey.

“I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue. The resolution takes a position. It comes to a judgment,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history,” he said. “And I don’t think the U.S. Congress should be the arbiter either.”

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Events planned

Tuesday is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, and events are planned across the country to press for action on Capitol Hill. There are an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million Americans of Armenian descent.

The pending congressional resolution calls on the president to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.” It also calls on the president to ensure that U.S. foreign policy reflects “appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian genocide.”

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Similar resolutions were approved by the House in 1975 and 1984, but never made it through the Senate. A 1990 resolution was blocked by a Senate filibuster. The outlook this year in that chamber is uncertain.

Although the word “genocide” stirs passionate feelings, Los Angeles Times policy is to use it because a large body of historical evidence and authoritative recent research support the accuracy of the term to describe the events.

At least one Turkish historian, Taner Akcam, has concluded that the Turkish government did commit genocide against the Armenians. In his book “A Shameful Act,” Akcam cites numerous Ottoman documents that he says prove beyond a doubt that the Turkish leaders, under the cover of World War I, planned and carried out the murder of more than half of the Armenian people.

“For Turks to discuss the genocide openly, we would have to begin by conceding that some of our national fathers were thieves and murderers,” said Akcam, who teaches at the University of Minnesota. “This is why the subject is so taboo.”

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Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), one of the resolution’s chief sponsors, said: “One way you can tell that prospects for passage have improved this year is the intensity of the opposition.” Schiff’s district is home to more Armenian Americans than any other.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are among those working to scuttle the measure, contending it could jeopardize Turkey’s support for U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And a steady stream of Turkish officials, government-hired Washington lobbyists and companies with business interests in Turkey have been moving through Capitol offices, warning of a diplomatic backlash if the resolution passes.

Some say Pelosi’s past support for the measure does not assure she will push for a vote anytime soon. No vote has been scheduled in the House Foreign Affairs Committee or the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, usually the first stops for such legislation.

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“I’m absolutely confident that, ultimately, Speaker Pelosi will do what is in the best interests of our nation,” said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Turkey and an opponent of the resolution. He noted that supplies destined for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan pass through Turkey.

Radanovich dismissed such concern, saying: “The Turkish government will throw a fit, and three months later, they’ll be over it.”

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Mark Arax in California contributed to this report.


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