WASHINGTON - A key congressional committee approved a resolution yesterday that brands the World War I-era Ottoman Empire massacres of Armenians as genocide, despite warnings from President Bush that the measure would anger Turkey, a crucial US ally assisting the effort in Iraq.
In a rare show of urgency, Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates each declared that the resolution the House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved could lead Turkey's leaders to curb vital US military supply routes through their country, leaving American troops without enough equipment to conduct operations in neighboring Iraq.
"We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people," Bush told reporters on the White House lawn hours before the vote. "This resolution is not the right response to these mass killings."
The 27-to-21 vote by the Democratic-controlled committee, which broke largely along party lines, sends the resolution to the House floor for a vote in the coming weeks. Supporters argued that the resolution is long overdue, while those against it declared that it comes with a high price for US interests in the region.
"We will not forgive this genocide. But I cannot support this resolution at this time," said Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, citing US troops in Iraq who depend on Turkish supply lines. "This is not the time for this nation to speak on this dark chapter of history."
In Massachusetts, home to an estimated 50,000 Armenian-Americans, activists dedicated to having the killings designated as genocide welcomed the news.
"It's absurd to think that we can have a foreign policy that does not acknowledge the past," said Sharistan Melkonian, a Waltham resident who chairs the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts. She said US foreign policy has up until this point been "held hostage to lies."
The Armenian-American community began a successful movement this summer to persuade local towns to withdraw from the No Place for Hate program run by the Anti-Defamation League, an antidiscrimination group, because the League did not formally recognize the Armenian genocide. Last month the League acknowledged that the mass killings were "tantamount to genocide," but it has declined to support the resolution in Congress. The League has said it will revisit that position next month.
The Armenian community also has plans for a memorial to the massacre, to be built on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. But the proposal has generated controversy and opposition from some residents and officials, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who want to keep the Greenway free of such monuments.
In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat whose district has a large Armenian population, vowed to bring the measure to the House floor for a vote. A similar bill is making its way through the Senate, where Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have supported it.
Speaking with the Globe editorial board yesterday, Clinton said she cosponsored the bill because it seemed "to be a statement of recognition of a horrible period in the history of the Armenian people." But she acknowledged concern about Turkey's reaction, saying the opposition there has been greater than anticipated.
"Many of us have been somewhat taken aback by the ferocity of the [Turkish prime minister Tayyip] Erdogan government's response," she said. "The adamant expression of real dismay and outrage by this Turkish government has to be factored into this."
US officials believe the resolution would further strain the already tense relationship between the United States and Turkey, which recently massed troops on Iraq's northern border to battle alleged terrorist incursions from Kurdish separatists in Iraq's northern region.
President Abdullah Gul of Turkey has sent Bush a letter warning of repercussions if Congress passes the genocide resolution. A parliamentary delegation from Istanbul is in Washington this week to argue against the resolution, and Turkey has retained DLA Piper, a top Washington lobbyist firm, to represent it on Capitol Hill.
Armenians, a centuries-old Christian minority that came under oppressive rule by the Ottoman Empire in southwest Asia, have struggled for world recognition of the slaughter of their people nearly a century ago, in the area that now makes up modern-day Turkey.
Armenian scholars and others say more than a million men, women, and children died or were executed between 1914 and the late 1920s as nationalist Turkish leaders expelled or exterminated them in an attempt to create a modern state. Turkish officials reject that view of history, saying that the ethnic clashes between Turks and minority Armenians resulted from war and chaos following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, not from a coordinated campaign.
The historical question of whether those killings constitute a state-sponsored attempt to destroy the Armenian people has been hotly debated. Each side has pushed for resolutions declaring its viewpoint at the state, local, and national level.
US officials have said that they do not dispute the significance of the mass killings, but that it is not in American interests to risk angering Turkey by declaring the slaughter genocide, an internationally recognized term that would bring shame and dishonor to the nation. In a statement issued after yesterday's vote, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the resolution does little to help Turks and Armenians bridge their differences, yet risks "grave harm to US-Turkish relations and to US interests in Europe and the Middle East."
US administrations have wrestled over how to deal with the topic for years. Eight former secretaries of state recently wrote to Pelosi warning that the nonbinding resolution "would endanger our national security interests."
President Reagan called the Armenian killings genocide but none of his successors has done the same, out of deference to Turkey.
Past efforts in Congress to force the president to call the killings a genocide have failed to get a vote on the House floor. In 2000, a similar resolution was aborted when President Clinton convinced House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, that consideration of the measure would jeopardize American lives.
But Bush and Pelosi are unlikely to reach that kind of agreement, according to Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
"Given the relationship, and the fundamental disagreements they have on national security, one has to wonder whether those kinds of personal calls would make a difference," Aliriza said.
That's good news to Sevag Arzoumanian, a Cambridge resident who runs the website noplacefordenial.com. Arzoumanian, who spearheaded the local movement against the Anti-Defamation League, said yesterday that he is "really disappointed" that Turkey can bully Bush, the leader of a superpower. "Every time it comes up in Congress, it is killed by the administration, the Pentagon, the State Department," he said. "They say, 'It is not the right time.' It is never the right time."