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House panel narrowly passes recognition of Armenian genocide

The resolution sparks instant backlash from the Turkish government, which warns that the passage could negatively affect the country's relations with the U.S.

March 05, 2010|By Richard Simon and Teresa Watanabe

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — Sponsors of a long-debated congressional resolution to officially recognize the Armenian genocide cleared a key hurdle by a one-vote margin Thursday, but face a tough battle ahead to bring the measure before the House.

The resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee 23 to 22 over opposition from members of both parties who warned it could damage U.S. relations with Turkey, an important ally.

The Turkish government reacted immediately, recalling its ambassador, Namik Tan, in protest, and warning that the resolution's adoption "could adversely affect our cooperation." The United States has been seeking Turkey's support for new sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

Panel Chairman Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) pressed for the vote, even after receiving a call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressing concern it could "impede progress on normalization of relations" between Turkey and Armenia, according to an administration spokesman.

But Berman said that the United States, as a leader in promoting human rights, had a "moral responsibility" to pass the resolution. "Perhaps there will be consequences. . . . But I believe that Turkey values its relations with the United States as much as we value our relations with Turkey."

The vote came in a packed meeting attended by three elderly genocide survivors, who support the measure. Pointing to the survivors -- ages 97, 98 and 105 -- Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said, "They're here for justice. How long can they wait?"

The Turkish government has disputed that the World War I-era killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks were 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.

The resolution has been closely followed by California's large Armenian American population, and is backed by much of the state's congressional delegation. The tight vote underscored the challenge facing the resolution's sponsors in winning House approval.

"We have our work cut out for us," said Kenneth V. Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, adding that he was "extremely disappointed" in the Obama administration's position.

Indeed, when the resolution appeared at risk of being defeated, its chief sponsor, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), rushed to the House chamber to get supporters to the committee room to cast their votes.

In Southern California, the vote drew passionate and mixed reactions.

"I'm outraged and disappointed," said Ergun Kirlikovali, president-elect of the Assembly of Turkish American Assns., an umbrella group of 63 community organizations. He, like the Turkish government, disputed the use of the term genocide and said it was "being used as a tool by the Armenian lobby to defame Turkey, a reliable friend and ally in the troubled Mideast. And Armenians don't care."

Kirlikovali said the vote jeopardized U.S. interests in the Mideast, as Turkey could retaliate by withdrawing military cooperation.

But Father Vazken Movsesian, an Armenian priest in Glendale, hailed the vote as an acknowledgment of the truth.

He said he was in his car driving back to California from Arizona when he got a Twitter alert that the committee had passed the resolution. His joy was cloaked in caution, as he noted that other hurdles remained before the resolution could pass.

"We won a battle, not a war," he said. "But one day or another, the truth will come out. There's no question about it."

The new effort comes after a House vote was called off in 2007 when a similar measure, initially backed by a majority of the chamber, lost support as the vote neared.

The George W. Bush administration and Turkish government warned that passage could lead Turkey to block U.S. access to air bases used to get supplies to U.S. troops.

The resolution's supporters said they were unlikely to bring it to the House floor until they were confident they had the votes to pass it.

"The whipping operation starts today," Schiff said.

richard.simon@ latimes.com

teresa.watanabe@ latimes.com

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