Panel Labels Armenian Killings Genocide

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

A House panel voted yesterday to approve calling the mass killings of Armenians that began in 1915 genocide, defying the White House, which warned that the measure could damage U.S.-Turkey relations.

The Foreign Affairs Committee passed the nonbinding resolution on a 27 to 21 bipartisan vote. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has promised she will bring the resolution to the full House for a vote.

Turkey, one of Washington's most staunch Islamic allies, lobbied hard to kill the measure, launching a multimillion dollar campaign and threatening to curtail its cooperation in the Iraq war. President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates were joined by eight former secretaries of state and three former defense secretaries in condemning the proposal.

"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 in the global war on terror," Bush told reporters in the White House Rose Garden yesterday.

But the committee's chairman, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), said, "We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people . . . against the risk that it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price." Lantos supported the measure, as did most lawmakers from California, whose large and influential Armenian American community has pursued similar proposals for decades.

The tally was far closer than the last vote to support the resolution, in 2005. But committee members that year knew the resolution would probably not reach the floor, and it did not. This time, Pelosi's support makes a full House vote much more likely, causing committee members under heavy pressure by Turkey to think twice about their positions.

Pelosi did not lobbying colleagues yesterday, viewing it as a "matter of conscience," an aide said.

Several lawmakers have abandoned their support for the measure since it was introduced by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) in January, including co-sponsors Reps. Phil English (R-Pa.), Dan Boren (D-Okla.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), Bobby Jindal (R-La.), John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Dennis Moore (D-Kan.).

Two former sponsors who serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. David Scott (D-Ga.) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), voted against the resolution yesterday.

Scott said he is concerned that Turkey will scale back its role as an ally in the Middle East. "Are we willing to take that gamble to say, 'Oh, they're not going to do anything,' when they clearly have stated that they will," he said.

Nabi Sensoy, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, sat in the second row of the hearing room, flanked by a delegation of Turkish parliamentarians. He said Ankara would continue its fight against the resolution, believing it would lead to requests for massive monetary compensation by Armenian survivors.

"Why is Armenia not taking this to an international court? They are trying to win this on political grounds, and they will never let go," he said. "It's very disappointing. I'm hoping they will assume responsibility for the consequences," he said of House supporters.

Armenian Americans erupted in applause after the vote, while attendees of Turkish descent sat in stony silence.

Outside the hearing room, the Rev. Sarkis Aktavoukian, who leads an Armenian church in Bethesda, wept. "America has shown its justice today," he said.

The vote drew swift condemnation from the Bush administration. "We are deeply disappointed," said R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state of political affairs. "Turkey is one of our most important allies globally."

Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Peter Baker contributed to this report.

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