US-Turkey alliance shaken by vote on Armenia 'genocide'
The House Foreign Affairs Committee defied President George W Bush and the Washington foreign policy establishment by voting 27-21 to put a resolution categorising the death of up to 1.5 million Armenians as genocide to a vote of the full House of Representatives.
The resolution, which is backed by the Democratic leadership in the House, will come up for a vote before the House retires for the Thanksgiving recess next month.
Last night, Turkey withdrew its ambassador in the US for "consultations".
The committee's vote was a triumph for Armenian-American interest groups who have lobbied Congress for decades to pass a resolution - against the might of Turkish opposition.
After the debate, which was attended by elderly Armenian migrs who lived through the atrocities, the interest groups said they would fight to ensure approval by the full House.
"We hope that this process will lead to the full recognition by the United States of America of the fact of the Armenian genocide," said Armenia's foreign minister, Robert Kocharian.
"It is long past time for the US government to acknowledge and affirm this horrible chapter of history - the first genocide of the 20th century and a part of history that we must never forget," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.
Some committee members said backers were hypocrites or plain "crazy", as Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, put it. "We're talking about 'stiffing' the one ally that is helping us over there [in Iraq]. It just doesn't make any sense," he told a packed hearing room.
The committee's decision paves the way for a month of furious lobbying from both sides. Turkey denies that any genocide took place, blaming the death of, by Turkish estimates, between 250,000 and 500,000 Armenians on the general confusion and horrors of war.
Turkey warned yesterday that passing the resolution would severely compromise the health of US-Turkish relations. "This unacceptable decision of the committee, like similar ones in the past, is not regarded by the Turkish people as valid or of any value," said President Abdullah Gul. In a letter sent to Mr Bush, Mr Gul vowed that "in the case that Armenian allegations are accepted, there will be serious problems in the relations between the two countries."
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, represents a California district with a large Armenian community that has helped push her to backing the resolution, regardless of the damage it may do to relations between Washington and Ankara.
"For most members, this is about domestic politics, not foreign relations," said a senior Democratic aide who predicted that if the resolution "comes to the floor, it will pass". The resolution's backers claim they have the support of 226 of the 435 members of Congress - enough for a comfortable majority.
"The sad truth is the modern government of Turkey refuses to come to terms with this genocide,'' said Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey. "It is this denial that keeps the Armenian genocide a burning issue."
The fight over an often overlooked element of First World War history has become a struggle between realpolitik and idealism as members of Congress balance their obligations to their conscience against what the resolution's opponents say is the American national interest.
Eight former secretaries of state and three former defence secretaries wrote to members of Congress warning that passing the resolution would damage vital US interests in the Middle East. President George W Bush - who backed recognising the genocide in 2000 - also warned that while "we all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people, this resolution is not the right response to these mass killings."
Mr Bush said the resolution would do "great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror".
The debate has even embroiled American Jewish groups in controversy.
Turkey is the only Muslim country friendly to Israel and leading US Jewish organisations have called upon congress to resist Armenian entreaties that the genocide be recognised. "I don't think congressional action will help reconcile the issue. The resolution takes a position; it comes to a judgment," said Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year. "The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn't be the arbiter of that history, nor should the US Congress."
Jewish reluctance to recognise another genocide has been criticised by members of Congress and Armenian campaigners.
In London, the US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, warned that the consequences of the decision to have a full vote on the genocide resolution could be severe. "The Turks have been quite clear about some of the measures they would have to take if this resolution passes."
Mr Gates said Turkey was vital to the US war effort in Iraq, with 70 per cent of US air cargo and 30 per cent of fuel shipped to Iraq passing through Turkey and the country's Incirclik airbase acting as a vital hub for US operations.
The vote also came as Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked suspected positions of Kurdish rebels near Iraq, a possible prelude to a cross-border operation that the Bush administration has opposed. The US, already preoccupied with efforts to stabilise other areas of Iraq, believes that Turkish intervention in the relatively peaceful north could further destabilise the country.
Turkey did its best to confirm Mr Gates' warning. "This draft resolution will put US soldiers in danger," Egemen Bagis, an adviser to the Turkish president, Tayyip Erdogan, told CNN. "If our ally accuses us of crimes that we did not commit then we will start to question the advantages of our co-operation.
"Yesterday some in Congress wanted to play hardball. I can assure you Turkey knows how to play hardball."
He promised that if the resolution was passed "we will do something and I can promise you it won't be pleasant".
Public prosecutors in Turkey have previously used a law prohibiting "insulting Turkishness" to silence some Turkish intellectuals who spoke of atrocities endured by Armenians.
The son of a journalist killed earlier this year after calling the massacre of Armenians genocide was convicted of insulting Turkey's identity for republishing his father's remarks.
Arat Dink, editor of the Armenian newspaper Agos, received a one-year suspended sentence for "insulting Turkishness", said his lawyer. He said he would appeal against the sentences.
Mr Dink is the son of an ethnic Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, who was convicted of the same charge and then killed by a Turkish youth in January.
IN THE late 19th century the Ottoman Empire's Armenian minority, numbering an estimated two million, was encouraged by exiled groups in the United States, Geneva and in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to assert its nationalism.
Repression by Ottoman irregulars, mainly Kurds, led to the massacre of some 30,000 Armenians in eastern Anatolia in 1894-6.
Several thousand more were killed in Constantinople in August 1896 after Armenian extremists seized the Ottoman Bank to draw attention to their cause.
The massacres were halted after the Great Powers threatened to intervene.
• WHAT HAPPENED IN 1915?:
As the Ottomans fought Russian forces in eastern Anatolia during the First World War, many Armenians formed partisan groups to assist the invading Russian armies. On 24 April, 1915, Turkey arrested and killed hundreds of the Armenian intelligentsia. In May of that year Ottoman commanders began the mass deportation of Armenians from eastern Turkey thinking they might assist Russian invaders.
Thousands were marched from the Anatolian borders toward Syria and Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Armenians say some 1.5 million died either in massacres or from starvation or deprivation as they were marched through the desert.
It is widely acknowledged to have been one of the first modern, systematic genocides, as many Western sources point to the sheer scale of the death toll as evidence for a systematic, organised plan to eliminate the Armenians. The event is also said to be the second-most studied case of genocide. To date 21 countries have officially recognised the campaign as genocide.
• TURKEY'S VIEW:
Turkey has always denied there was a systematic campaign to annihilate Armenians, saying that thousands of Turks and Armenians died in ethnic violence as the Ottoman Empire started to collapse and fought a Russian invasion of its eastern provinces during the First World War.
The modern Turkish republic was established in 1923 after the Ottoman empire collapsed.