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Genocide resolution clears hurdle amid fierce lobbying

Times Staff Writer

The long struggle over formal U.S. recognition that the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was a genocide reached a turning point Wednesday, with a House committee calling on the president to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide.”

A divided House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the emotionally charged measure, despite fierce lobbying by Turkey and President Bush, who sternly warned that it would offend an important ally and harm U.S. security interests.

Armenian groups in the United States have pressed for the resolution, while Turkish politicians have threatened to retaliate -- which could mean cutting off U.S. access to a crucial Turkish air base that is used to supply U.S. troops in Iraq.

The bipartisan 27-21 vote came in a packed room that included four survivors of the World War I-era genocide, three in their 90s and one who was 102. “Somebody’s got to speak for the people I see in front of me,” Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) said in urging the resolution’s passage.

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Congress has wrestled for years with the issue, which has been closely watched by Armenian Americans, many of whom live in California. This year, the resolution, which does not have to be approved by the president, appears to stand its best chance of passing.

The resolution has 225 cosponsors in the House -- more than a majority and the most support it has ever received, according to its chief sponsor, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank). Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who became House speaker with the Democratic takeover of Congress this year, has long championed the issue.

The bill faces a tougher time in the Senate. It has the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), but it has drawn just 32 cosponsors, well short of the votes needed to pass.

Schiff called the lobbying by the White House and Turkey the “most intensive legislative fight” he had ever been in. Still, he said, “The truth sometimes wins, and it won today.”

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The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place, contending that during and after the First World War, Armenians as well as Turks were casualties of the war, famine and disease. But historical evidence and authoritative research support the term, and The Times’ policy is to refer to the deaths as genocide.

Opponents of the measure warned that it could threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East, endangering U.S. military supplies that pass through Incirlik air base near the southern Turkish city of Adana on their way to American troops in Iraq. Turkey is one of the United States’ most important allies in the Muslim world.

“We’re talking about kicking the one ally that’s helping us over there in the face right now,” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said that “America can ill-afford to lose the support of an ally as important as Turkey at this critical juncture.”

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But Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) responded, “I consider myself a friend of Turkey. But friends don’t let friends commit crimes against humanity -- genocide -- and then act as witting or unwitting accomplices in their denial.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) dismissed the threats of reprisals. “We will get a few angry words out of Ankara for a few days, and then it’s over,” he said. “We cannot provide genocide denial as one of the perks of friendship with the United States.”

The resolution was backed by 19 Democrats, including committee Chairman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor from Burlingame; and eight Republicans. Eight Democrats and 13 Republicans opposed it. All 10 Californians on the committee supported the resolution.

Schiff said he was optimistic that the resolution would pass the House, though he predicted another tough fight. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, said the measure would “move swiftly to the House floor and will be passed with overwhelming support.” A House vote is expected before Thanksgiving.

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Similar resolutions were approved by the House in 1975 and 1984 but did not make it through the Senate. In 2000, a genocide resolution was headed to the House floor when the vote was abruptly called off at the urging of then-President Clinton.

“This is a historic day,” Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said after the vote.

Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy, who was in the audience for the vote, vowed to continue to fight, and the Turkish government said it “resents and condemns” the vote.

“It is an irresponsible act for a committee of the House of Representatives to pass, in this manner and at an extremely critical time, a draft that will not only endanger the relations with a friendly and allied nation but also jeopardize a strategic partnership that has been cultivated for generations,” the Turkish statement said. “We still hope that common sense will prevail and that the House of Representatives will not move this resolution any further.”

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Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Pelosi, said that the committee vote “demonstrated bipartisan support for a resolution which is consistent with long-held concerns of the people of the United States about the suffering of the Armenian people.”

Hours before the vote, Bush warned that the resolution’s passage would have serious consequences for U.S. foreign policy. “Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror,” Bush said on the south lawn of the White House.

“We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people,” he said, but added: “This resolution is not the right response to these mass killings.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also spoke out against the measure, as did a slate of past secretaries of State from both parties.

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Gates said that 70% of the supplies destined to U.S. forces in Iraq were flown through Turkey, including almost all of the new mine-resistant armored vehicles. He said access to airfields and roads “would very much be put at risk if this resolution passes and Turkey reacts as strongly as we believe they will.”

Turkey spent thousands of dollars on lobbyists -- including hiring the firm that employs former House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) -- and sent a delegation of high-ranking officials to the U.S. Capitol to buttonhole U.S. lawmakers.

In Turkey, hundreds marched to U.S. consulates to protest the resolution, and leftist demonstrators chanted anti-American slogans at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkish media outlets reported.

The resolution’s consideration comes at a tense time, when fighting between Kurdish rebels and Turkish troops has escalated. Turkey reportedly launched airstrikes into Iraq on Wednesday, targeting Kurdish rebel positions.

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Turkish commentators have suggested that there will be reprisals if the resolution passes.

“This decision may be a new turning point -- even the beginning of a new departure -- in Turkish-U.S. relations,” commentator Sami Kohen said in the prominent newspaper Milliyet.

If Congress passes the resolution, commentator Tamer Korkmaz said this week in the conservative newspaper Zaman, “we would not be the real losers, the U.S. would be.”

Turkish-U.S. relations have been prickly for some time. Ankara refused to allow American forces to use Incirlik to launch one flank in the invasion into Iraq in 2003. The U.S. has been reluctant to crack down on anti-Turkish Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq for fear of harming relations with Kurds, who are the most reliable U.S. allies among the Iraqis.

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On the other side, former California Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican of Armenian descent, recorded a message supporting the resolution that was posted on the Internet by the Armenian-American Political Action Committee. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) urged passage of the resolution, saying that any diplomatic fallout would be transient. “Turkey and the United States have a broad and deep relationship that will survive our recognition of this historic truth,” he wrote.

The head of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church, His Holiness Karekin II, delivered the invocation in the House chamber earlier Wednesday, asking all to “remember the victims of the genocide.”

Both sides are expected to step up lobbying before the House vote. A few lawmakers who were once cosponsors have withdrawn their support.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) said last week in a letter to the Foreign Affairs Committee that “a terrible crime was committed against the Armenian people,” but, noting that Turkey helps to moderate extremist forces in the Middle East, concluded, “I have great concern that this is the wrong time for the Congress to consider this measure.”

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richard.simon@latimes.com

Times special correspondent Yesim Borg in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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The back story

Between 1915 and 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in eastern Turkey as the region was engulfed in the violence of World War I and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire. Substantial evidence and authoritative research support the conclusion that they were victims of a genocide, murdered by Turkish forces or killed by exposure to harsh weather and disease during forced deportations. Turks insist there was no government- sponsored program to eliminate Armenians. They maintain that massive numbers of Armenians, and Turks, died in the chaos of war and in an uprising staged by Armenians seeking to take advantage of a government weakened by World War I.


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