Over Turkish protests, House panel calls killing of Armenians 'genocide'

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

A congressional committee voted Thursday to label as "genocide" the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians, shrugging off a last-minute warning from Obama administration officials that it would alienate Turkey, a key U.S. ally.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on the eve of the hearing to express concern, administration officials said. In addition to straining U.S. relations with Turkey, the resolution could also endanger a recent rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, State Department officials said.

But the committee voted 23 to 22 to adopt the nonbinding measure. It calls on President Obama to use the annual presidential statement on the tragedy next month to "characterize the systemic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."

The Turkish government was so infuriated by the vote that it recalled its ambassador for consultations. It warned in a statement that the move "could adversely affect our cooperation on a wide common agenda."

The Armenian issue has placed the Obama administration in a bind. As senators, Obama, Vice President Biden and Clinton had all called on the White House to condemn the killings as genocide.

But the administration needs Turkish cooperation on a number of fronts. Turkey has contributed troops to the coalition in Afghanistan and allowed the use of an air base to supply U.S. forces in Iraq. It currently holds a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council and thus will have a vote on sanctions against its neighbor, Iran.

A similar Armenian genocide resolution, approved in 2007 by a six-vote margin, prompted a furious damage-control effort by the Bush administration, which kept it from reaching the House floor. U.S. officials were hopeful the resolution would once again stall this year.

"What is critical is that it go no further," said one official, who sought anonymity in order to speak freely about the subject.

Few people doubt that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed during and immediately after World War I. But Turkish officials and some historians say the deaths were caused by forced relocations and fighting at the demise of the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire, rather than by a campaign of genocide.

The hearing on the vote was packed and included three elderly women in wheelchairs who survived the killings.

Berman noted that Turkey is "a loyal ally of the United States in a volatile region." But, he said, "nothing justifies Turkey's turning a blind eye to the reality of the Armenian genocide."

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said the resolution would show U.S. leadership on human rights.

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who voted against the resolution, said he has sympathy for the Armenian victims. "But we're in the 21st century. We have troops in the field. We run the risk of losing a base of operations in Turkey," he said.

Armenian Americans have a significant presence in California, and their cause has been championed by that state's politicians, including Berman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D).

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley warned that the resolution could complicate an agreement signed, but not yet ratified, by Turkey and Armenia last fall to normalize relations. Obama called Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Wednesday to express support for his efforts to normalize relations, officials said.

Obama vowed during his campaign that, as president, he would "recognize the Armenian genocide." To date, he has not used those words. Mike Hammer, a National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement before the vote that Obama's "view of that history has not changed."

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