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Sponsors delay genocide vote

They bow to fears the resolution on Armenian deaths could harm the U.S. war effort in Iraq by angering Turkey.

October 26, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Yielding to fierce diplomatic and political pressure, congressional sponsors of an Armenian genocide resolution abruptly put off a vote on the measure Thursday and defused a mounting confrontation with Turkey that was threatening to hamper the U.S. war effort in Iraq.

The decision, a swift reversal for the long-debated resolution, disappointed supporters who two weeks ago were optimistic that the House would approve it. "We're not going to bring it up until we're confident we have the votes to pass it," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who introduced the measure. "It's going to take some time."

The action extricated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) from the clash between a powerful constituency in California and an important U.S. military ally.

As the measure approached a vote, the Turkish government warned that the resolution's passage could lead to a rupture in relations and disrupt U.S. military operations in Iraq. Most of the supplies headed to U.S. forces in Iraq are flown through Turkey. The issue also came up as the United States was imploring Turkey not to send forces into northern Iraq to curb Kurdish rebel attacks.

Republican opponents welcomed the delay and blamed Pelosi for a miscalculation on an important foreign policy matter. "Fortunately, the right decision was made before this debacle turned into a full-blown national security crisis," said Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The resolution's backers once counted a majority of the House as sponsors. When it cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee two weeks ago, Pelosi pledged to bring it to the floor.

"When it passed out of Foreign Affairs, I thought it was finally going to happen," said Rep. George Radanovich (R-Mariposa), a sponsor of the resolution, which calls on the president to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."

But support began to ebb as President Bush and Turkey escalated their warnings and the situation in northern Iraq deteriorated. Two dozen representatives have withdrawn their support, raising doubts about whether it could pass.

Supporters said that Pelosi remained committed to the measure and that they had no choice but to bow to political reality. "If this were to come up to the floor today, it would be too close to call," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

The resolution's backers stressed that they delayed the vote only to buy time to rebuild political support.

Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), a co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, who has pressed the resolution for more than a decade, said he was hopeful. "We have never been anywhere near this close. Never. I don't think we're going to give up."

In a letter to Pelosi sent Thursday, four of the measure's sponsors said they would press for passage later this year or next year. "We believe that a large majority of our colleagues want to support a resolution recognizing the genocide on the House floor and that they will do so, provided the timing is more favorable," wrote Reps. Schiff, Sherman, Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.).

Aram S. Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, faxed a letter to every House member, criticizing Turkey and expressing "disappointment, even anger, that an ally is so brazenly threatening the security of our troops."

"We are confident that, as the confusion over these threats lifts, an even stronger bipartisan majority will stand up against Turkey's intimidation and vote to adopt this human rights resolution on its merits," he wrote.

The Turkish government disputes that the World War I-era killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks was a genocide, contending that both Turks and Armenians were casualties of the war, famine and disease. But historical evidence and authoritative research support the term, and The Times' policy is to refer to the deaths as genocide.

Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy, who was recalled to Ankara in protest of the House committee vote but returned last weekend, said in a statement that he was pleased that the measure was not headed to a floor vote. "This is a deeply complex and emotional issue that has caused great anguish among the Turkish people," he said. "We do not believe it is the role of the U.S. Congress -- or of any legislative body -- to pass judgment on this historical matter."

Sensoy continued, "It is high time to use our energies to encourage reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, and normalization between Turkey and Armenia, something we Turks have been striving to achieve for a long time."

Armenian American groups were not in a conciliatory mood.

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