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AP, AFP
A senior U.S. State Department issued a forceful appeal Thursday for Congress to reject a proposed resolution defining as genocide the mass killings of Armenians in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said Turkish officials have informed the United States that approval of the resolution could lead to shutdown of the U.S. base at Incirlik or a restriction on U.S. overflight rights granted by Turkey.

Fried said the United States also has been informed that the Turkish Parliament would respond with "extreme emotion" if the Armenian resolution were approved. He added that such a step would undercut voices in Turkey calling for a "truthful exploration of these events in pursuit of Turkey's reconciliation with its own past and with Armenia."

Fried testified before a hearing of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe. He highlighted what he said were growing calls in Turkey for changes to Article 301 of the Turkish Constitution, which criminalizes "insulting Turkishness."

The resolution, Fried said, runs counter to the views of the 60,000-70,000 Turkish-Armenian community which, he added, has been warning that the measure would "raise popular emotions so dramatically as to threaten their personal security." He also said the U.S. fear is that "passage of any such resolution would close minds and harden hearts."

In joint identical letters to the speaker of the House of Representatives and two other senior members, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the resolution also could inflict significant damage on U.S. efforts to reconcile the long-standing dispute between the West Asian neighbors. The appeals went to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Rep. John Boehner, leader of the House's Republican minority; and Rep. Tom Lantos, the Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of one of the letters Wednesday. It was dated March 7, two days after Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was in Washington to visit Rice and said afterward that "Turkish lobbying at a government level" threatened to scuttle the resolution.

A Democratic aide said Pelosi, who controls the House agenda, has no plan to bring the proposal before the House soon. The aide spoke anonymously because final plans have not been approved.

A congressional staff aide, also speaking without attribution, said it is understood that Lantos, whose committee would deal with the resolution, was awaiting word from Pelosi. Both the speaker and Lantos have been supporters of the legislation. The bipartisan resolution was introduced on January 30.

Passage of the resolution would harm "U.S. efforts to promote reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia and to advance recognition by Turkey of the tragic events that occurred to ethnic Armenians under the Ottoman Empire," the letters said. They said the United States is encouraging "our friends in Turkey to re-examine their past with honesty and to reconcile with Armenia, as well as security and stability in the broader Middle East and Europe."

Rice and Gates reminded the lawmakers of repercussions from a vote in the French National Assembly last October to criminalize denial of Armenian genocide. "The Turkish military cut all contacts with the French military and terminated defense contracts under negotiation," the letters said.

Similar reaction against passage of the House resolution "could harm American troops in the field, constrain our ability to supply our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and significantly damage our efforts to promote reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey at a key turning point in their relations."

Turkey has NATO's second-largest army. The U.S. Air Force has a major base in southern Turkey near Iraq, which it has used for operations in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Between the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq war, warplanes from Incirlik Air Base enforced a flight ban in Northern Iraq against the Iraqi air force.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the family of slain Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink on Thursday filed a motion for a judicial probe into officials they accused of being implicated in the murder.

"We submitted to the prosecutor a request for a (judicial) investigation against all public officials already facing administrative charges in connection with the case," Lawyer Bahri Bayram Belen told reporters in Istanbul. "We believe it will not be possible to shed light on this political assassination if all the blame is put on a few children from poor families," he added.

The January 19 murder of the editor of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos is the work of a "well-structured organization... that aims to prevent democracy from functioning in Turkey," Belen said.

Police have so far arrested 11 suspects in connection with the killing, including Ogun Samast, an unemployed 17-year-old a high school dropout who, officials say, has confessed to gunning down Dink, 52, outside the Agos offices in Istanbul. Most of the suspects are from the Black Sea city of Trabzon -- a bastion of nationalism -- and are believed to be close to ultranationalist groups who hated Dink for his views on the World War I killings of Armenians under Ottoman rule.

Dink described the 1915-1918 killings as genocide, a label that Turkey, the Ottoman Empire's successor, categorically rejects. Interior ministry inspectors are currently looking into allegations that Istanbul police received a tip-off last year about a plot to kill Dink being organized in Trabzon, but did not follow up.

Showing a copy of a note from Trabzon police informing their colleagues in Istanbul of a plot to murder Dink, lawyer Fethiye Cetin said 17 similar messages in all had been sent to the Istanbul police. "These prove that it was not negligence or forgetfulness, but the conscious participation of the authorities in this crime," she said.

A preliminary investigation has been launched against Istanbul police chief Celalettin Cerrah and another senior officer on charges that they failed to act on the intelligence received from Trabzon. Another investigation is under way against Trabzon's governor and police chief, already removed from office amid accusations that they failed to seriously investigate groups of ultra-nationalist youths in the city.

(Photolur photo: Daniel Fried.)
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