ANKARA (Reuters) - NATO member Turkey recalled its ambassador to the United States for consultations on Thursday after a vote in a U.S. congressional committee branded killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks genocide.
The committee’s decision is expected to weaken U.S. influence over Turkey at a time when the government is considering a military incursion into mainly Kurdish northern Iraq to fight Kurdish rebels.
Turkey’s prime minister will ask parliament next week to authorize a military push although analysts say a large cross-border operation remains unlikely.
Washington fears such an offensive could destabilize Iraq’s most peaceful area and potentially the wider region.
The U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved on Wednesday a resolution branding the killings during World War One as genocide.
The issue of the Armenian massacres is deeply sensitive in Turkey, where it is a crime to portray them as “genocide.”
The non-binding resolution now goes to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democratic leaders say there will be a vote by mid-November.
Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, has said bilateral ties and military cooperation could be damaged if Congress passes the measure.
“We called back our ambassador to Washington for consultations. It should not be understood that we have pulled him back permanently,” a senior Turkish diplomat told Reuters.
In Washington, Ambassador Nabi Sensoy played down the significance of his return to Ankara. “This is a normal affair especially after certain important development takes place,” he told reporters outside his residence.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for President George W. Bush who strongly opposed the House resolution, said: “We look forward to (the ambassador’s) quick return and will continue to work to maintain strong U.S.-Turkish relations.”
Ankara rejects the Armenian position, backed by many Western historians and some foreign parliaments, that up to 1.5 million Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks. Turkey says many Muslim Turks died alongside Christian Armenians in inter-ethnic conflict as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
Armenian President Robert Kocharyan welcomed the decision by the U.S. committee. Turkey has no diplomatic ties with Armenia.
“The fact that Turkey has adopted a position up to now on genocide does not mean that it can bind other states to deny the historic truth as well,” Kocharyan told reporters in Brussels.
A Turkish official told Reuters the commander of Turkey’s powerful navy, Admiral Metin Atac, had cancelled a visit to Washington in retaliation over the U.S. bill.
Anti-U.S. sentiment has steadily risen in Turkey, partly because of what Turks regard as an unfair portrayal of Turks during World War One, but also because of what they say is a failure by the U.S. and Iraq to crack down on some 3,000 Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq.
Last month Turkey signed an anti-terror agreement with Iraq in an attempt to halt these Kurdish guerrilla attacks. Turkish military officials said Kurdish rebels killed 13 soldiers in fighting on Sunday in Sirnak province, which borders Iraq.
Such attacks have put domestic pressure on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan which has increased following the Armenian resolution. The army has been pressing for months to be allowed to mount a major cross-border operation against the rebels.
“Unfortunately there is a linkage between the bill and a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq because the Turkish public will be much angered towards the United States and the government will feel so as well,” Faruk Logoglu, an influential former Turkish ambassador to Washington, told Reuters.
The United States relies heavily on Turkish bases to supply its war effort in Iraq. Any Turkish offensive into northern Iraq would seriously strain ties with Washington and possibly hurt Turkey’s bid for European Union membership.
Ankara will lobby Congress to prevent the bill from being approved and Erdogan is due to travel to Washington in early November for talks with U.S. President George W. Bush.
Erdogan’s government will seek authorization for a military incursion after a public holiday which ends on Sunday, senior ruling AK Party lawmaker Sadullah Ergin said.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) wants to carve out an ethnic homeland in the southeast of Turkey. More than 30,000 have been killed in the conflict.
Additional reporting by Hidir Goktas in Ankara, Emma Ross-Thomas and Daren Butler in Istanbul, Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, Sue Pleming in Washington and David Brunnstrom in Brussels