By Desmond Butler, The Associated PressA measure to declare that the World War I-era killings of Armenians was genocide is expected to advance in the U.S. Congress next week, despite opposition from the Bush administration and Turkey's warning that its relations with Washington could be badly damaged.
Similar measures have been debated in Congress for decades, but have repeatedly been thwarted amid concerns about damaging relations with Turkey, an important NATO ally. Tuesday's announcement by the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee that it would consider the resolution next Wednesday signals that the Democratic leaders, who control the House, support the measure. With that support, the bill stands a good chance of passing in a vote by the full House this time.
If the resolution is approved by the committee, it would be up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to decide whether to bring it to the House floor for a vote. While Pelosi has previously expressed support for recognizing the killings as genocide, it is not clear whether she would bring the resolution to a vote.
But according to two congressional aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the committee would not have taken up the resolution without Pelosi's support. The measure is expected to pass in the committee and has widespread support in the full House, should Pelosi allow a vote.
Though the largely symbolic measure would have no binding effect on U.S. foreign policy, it could nonetheless damage an already strained relationship with Turkey.
The dispute involves the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Armenian advocates, backed by many historians, contend the Armenians died in an organized genocide. The Turks say the Armenians were victims of widespread chaos and governmental breakdown as the 600-year-old empire collapsed in the years before Turkey was born in 1923.
The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, says passage is overdue and urgent, with time running out for the remaining survivors of the killings. "The United States has a compelling historical and moral reason to recognize the Armenian Genocide, which cost a million and a half people their lives," Schiff said in a statement. "But we also have a powerful contemporary reason as well: how can we take effective action against the genocide in Darfur if we lack the will to condemn genocide whenever and wherever it occurs?"
Turkey argues that the U.S. House of Representatives is the wrong institution to arbitrate a sensitive historical dispute. It has proposed that an international commission of experts examine Armenian and Turkish archives.
In the meantime, Turkey has been lobbying intensively in Congress with support from the Bush administration to quash the resolution. "The administration is very much against this resolution and has been very active in trying to stop it," said Turkey's ambassador to Washington, Nabi Sensoy. "We are very grateful for their help."
But Sensoy said that Turkey's government may have to respond should the resolution pass. "We are not in the business of threatening, but nobody is going to win if this is passed," he said.
The measure comes at a time when public opinion polls show that the United States has become widely unpopular in Turkey because of opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found the United States had only a 9 percent favorable rating in Turkey.
After France voted last year to make denial of Armenian genocide a crime, the Turkish government ended military ties. A similar move with the United States could have drastic repercussions on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which rely heavily on Turkish support.