WASHINGTON - The government of Turkey yesterday ordered its ambassador in Washington to return to Ankara for consultations, a swift rebuke to a congressional committee's adoption of a resolution that declares that the World War I-era massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide.
Turkey's president, Abdullah Gül, called the resolution approved Wednesday by the House Foreign Affairs Committee "unacceptable."
Turkey's foreign ministry warned in a statement that the nonbinding measure will "jeopardize a strategic partnership" between the United States and Turkey "that has been cultivated for generations."
Amid the fallout over the committee's vote, Turkey's prime minister announced that he would seek approval from Parliament for a military incursion into Northern Iraq to more aggressively pursue Kurdish rebels who have attacked Turkish troops. Although Turkey has long considered stronger action against cross-border raids from Kurdish militants, some saw the timing of the announcement, close to the committee vote, as a veiled warning to the United States, which opposes the move.
Yesterday, White House and State Department officials scrambled to lobby against the resolution on Capitol Hill while other senior Bush administration officials tried to assure the Turkish government that they are fighting to defeat it. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters yesterday that Rice would make calls to Turkish officials.
"This is an issue that we know has great emotional resonance in Turkey and elsewhere," Casey said. "We oppose it, and we're going to continue to do so."
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat whose district is home to a large Armenian-American population, said the Democratic leadership was committed to passing the resolution by the end of the year. She suggested that she does not believe Turkey will make good on its threats to retaliate.
"So as long as there is genocide, there is need to speak out against it," Pelosi said yesterday. "The US and Turkey have a very strong relationship. It is based on mutual interest. And I, with all the respect in the world for the government of Turkey, believe that our continued mutual interest will have us grow that relationship."
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said yesterday that he hopes the Turkish government's "disappointment" with the genocide resolution "can be limited to statements" and will not prompt further action against the United States.
But Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Turkey will probably launch its full reaction after the House considers the resolution in the coming weeks. Repercussions, he said, could include taking away US use of the Incirlik Air Base, which supplies US troops in Iraq. He also said that Turkey is now more likely to ignore US requests not to enter northern Iraq.
"The US ability to influence the Turks, and to dissuade them, has been undermined quite seriously by this," he said, adding that the United States is increasingly unpopular in Turkey. "When the US says, 'Please don't intervene,' the Turks might be less amenable."
At a briefing yesterday, White House press secretary Dana Perino said that she didn't "know if there's a causation" between the resolution and the Turkish prime minister's decision to seek permission for cross-border action against the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Perino said the US government has been working diligently with Turkey to stop the attacks by Kurdish rebels, and has appointed a special envoy to deal with the issue.
Turkish officials said their ambassador would return for a week or 10 days of consultations. The move, a common diplomatic protest, will also allow the ambassador to take part in deliberations over the Turkish government's response.
Introduced earlier this year by Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is outspoken on Armenian issues, the resolution on the Armenian genocide has collected 225 cosponsors, suggesting that it would pass a possible House vote. But some cosponsors are backing away from their support in recent weeks due to Turkey's opposition.
Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who chairs a House intelligence subcommittee, was among the cosponsors earlier this year, but last week urged her colleagues not to pass it.
"Following a visit to Turkey earlier this year . . . I have great concern that this is the wrong time for Congress to pass this measure," she wrote in a Oct. 3 letter to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. "Turkey plays a critically important role in moderating extremist forces [in the Middle East]. . . . However valid from a historical perspective, we should avoid taking steps that would embarrass or isolate the Turkish leadership."
Senator Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat and presidential hopeful, said she now has qualms about supporting a similar measure she cosponsored in the Senate.
On Wednesday she told The Boston Globe editorial board that Turkey's opposition had been stronger than anticipated and that Congress should proceed with caution.
Though it is nonbinding, the resolution is a symbolic measure that establishes for the record an official US version of events that took place nearly a century ago.
It states that the Ottoman Empire - part of which has become modern-day Turkey - "conceived and carried out" a systematic campaign to eliminate the Armenian minority between 1915 and 1923. Nearly 2 million men, women, and children were expelled from their historic homeland, and as many as 1.5 million people died during that period, the resolution says.
The resolution calls on the US president to refer to the killings as a genocide during his annual address commemorating the killings. The issue is so explosive in Turkey that describing the Armenian killings as genocide is a crime.
Yesterday, a Turkish court convicted two newspaper editors - including the son of murdered Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink - for insulting "Turkishness." The journalists published articles arguing that the genocide designation is justified.
But Turkish officials adamantly reject that version of events. They contend the Armenians died in ethnic clashes with the Turks during World War I, and that the genocide designation does not apply.
The US-Turkish relationship has been under strain since 2003, when Turkey's Parliament refused to allow US soldiers to use its territory to stage the invasion of Iraq. But Turkey did allow use of its air base to resupply US troops.
The base now serves as a transit point for 95 percent of the military's heavy vehicles into Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters in London yesterday.
Gates said that Turkey's strong reaction to the congressional resolution should not be a surprise.
"I think it's worth noting that the French Parliament passed a similar resolution, and there were a number of steps taken by the Turkish government to punish, if you will, the French government." Following the French vote, Turkey announced it would freeze its military ties with France.
But state Representative Peter Kotoujian, a Waltham Democrat who has led the local Armenian-American movement to raise awareness of the mass killings, said Turkey's response "should encourage people to press on" with the genocide resolution.
"The United States has to stand up for truth," said Kotoujian, whose grandparents survived the massacres. "Unless you stand up for truth, you can never lead."