By Desmond Butler, The Associated Press
With Democrats taking control of the U.S. Congress, prospects have increased that lawmakers will approve a resolution recognizing the World War I-era killings of Armenians as genocide - despite the objections of President George W. Bush.
The shift in Congress also dims the likelihood that the Bush administration can break a deadlock over the president’s nominee for ambassador to Armenia, Richard Hoagland. Senate Democrats have blocked Hoagland's nomination because of his refusal to call the killings a genocide.
The matters before Congress highlight how the deaths of the 1.5 million Armenians almost a century ago remain a sensitive international issue today. The Bush administration has warned that even congressional debate on the genocide question could damage relations with Turkey, a moderate Muslim nation that is a NATO member and an important strategic ally.
Turkey has adamantly denied claims by scholars that its predecessor state, the Ottoman government, caused the Armenian deaths in a planned genocide. The Turkish government has said the toll is wildly inflated and that Armenians were killed or displaced in civil unrest during the empire's collapse. After French lawmakers voted in October to make it a crime to deny that the killings were a genocide, Turkey said it would suspend military relations with France.
In Washington, Armenian-American groups have been pressing for years for a resolution on the genocide issue. The House of Representatives' International Relations Committee last year endorsed two resolutions classifying the killings as genocide. But the House leadership, controlled by Bush's Republican Party, prevented a vote by the full chamber.
With Democrats taking over the House, the top leader will be Nancy Pelosi, who has supported the genocide legislation. A spokesman for Pelosi, Drew Hamill, says she'll continue to support the resolutions.
"I think we have the best chance probably in a decade to get an Armenian genocide resolution passed," said Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, a top advocate of the resolutions.
The genocide question was the key issue as the Senate considered the ambassadorial nomination of Hoagland to replace John Evans, who reportedly had his tour of duty cut short because, in a social setting, he referred to the killings as genocide. Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, blocked the nomination over Hoagland's refusal to use the word genocide at his confirmation hearing in June. With Democrats taking over the Senate, it will be even more difficult now for the Bush administration to circumvent Menendez's objections.
Early this month, Menendez and the Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking the Bush administration to withdraw the nomination. But an administration official responded in a letter to Menendez that it was continuing to back Hoagland.
"Despite some claims to the contrary, neither Ambassador-designate Hoagland nor the administration has ever minimized or denied the fact or the extent of the annihilation and forced exile of as many as 1.5. million ethnic Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire," Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns wrote.
The letter was provided to The Associated Press by a congressional aide, who requested anonymity because the administration had not agreed to its release. "It would be a shame for the entire Foreign Service should Ambassador-designate Hoagland, an experienced diplomat with a distinguished record of service, be denied confirmation due to past disagreements over Ambassador Evans."