March 19, 2009 / 11:24 PM / 9 years ago

Turkey, U.S. play down tensions over Armenia issue

* Turkey: Issue won’t ‘hijack’ Obama visit

* U.S. wants to work closely with Turkey and Armenia (Adds White House comment, paragraphs 8-9)

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) - Seeking to avert tensions during President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey, both sides are playing down potential fallout from a renewed attempt by some U.S. lawmakers to declare the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks genocide.

Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign policy adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters on Thursday the issue, which caused U.S.-Turkish relations to plummet in 2007, would not "hijack" Obama’s visit to the NATO ally early next month.

"Nothing can shadow the success of this visit," Davutoglu told reporters after meeting Obama’s national security adviser, Jim Jones, at the White House.

During his 2008 campaign for the White House, Obama referred to the killings of Armenians in World War One as genocide, which Turkey strongly rejects. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton co-sponsored a genocide resolution on Armenia when she was in the Senate.

The reintroduction on Tuesday by several lawmakers of a new resolution in the House of Representatives could complicate Obama’s visit and Davutoglu said the issue was discussed in his meeting with Jones.

Asked whether Obama’s views might have changed, Davutoglu was noncommittal.

"I did not say yes or no," he said. "Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of General Jones, but we went through all these issues in a very friendly and cooperative manner."

White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer declined to comment on what Jones and Davutoglu discussed regarding the Armenian issue.

"Our focus is on how, moving forward, the U.S. can help Armenia and Turkey work together to come to terms with the past," he said. "It is important that countries have an open and honest dialogue about the past. At the same time, we want to work closely with both Turkey and Armenia on the key issues that confront the region."

Recognizing how sensitive the issue could become in U.S.-Turkish relations, the State Department has avoided comment on the resolution or what the Obama administration’s policy is on labeling what happened as genocide.

"I don’t want to go any further on it until we have had a chance to take a closer look at it and discuss it within the government, and that’s where I‘m going to leave it," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters on Wednesday.

NO CONGRESSIONAL VOTE ‘ANY TIME SOON’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when asked if it was a good time to bring up the Armenian resolution, reiterated her view that genocide occurred.

Whether Obama travels to the region or not "does not deny the fact that there was an Armenian genocide, and there are those of us in Congress who will continue to make that point," the California lawmaker told Reuters.

Pelosi’s spokesman, Brendan Daly, said he did not know whether the sponsors of the latest resolution had enough support for it to pass in the House but "no one’s talking about a vote any time soon."

Similar resolutions have been introduced in Congress for years and Pelosi has been a longtime supporter of having Congress declare the killings a genocide.

But as speaker, she did not bring the legislation to the floor for a vote in 2007 after pressure by the Bush administration, amid concerns over the sensitivities of Turkey. (Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by John O‘Callaghan and Peter Cooney)




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