WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional panel headed on Thursday toward a vote on calling a 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces genocide despite a plea from the Obama administration to drop the matter and defuse a dispute with Turkey.
The issue puts President Barack Obama between NATO ally Turkey, which rejects calling the events genocide, and an important U.S. Armenian-American constituency and their backers in Congress ahead of a November congressional election.
Turkey has said its ties with the United States would be damaged and that Ankara’s efforts to normalize relations with Armenia could be endangered if the resolution is passed when the House Foreign Affairs Committee votes on Thursday.
One Turkish government official said Turkey was open to all options — including the recall of its ambassador to Washington — if the congressional panel approves the legislation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, a Democrat, on Wednesday to argue that the legislation could harm efforts to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations, the White House said.
“Secretary Clinton called Chairman Berman ... and in that conversation the secretary indicated that further congressional action could impede progress on normalization of relations,” said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.
Turkey and Armenia signed a protocol last year to normalize relations but the papers are yet to pass through the parliament of either country.
Turkey is an important ally whose help the United States needs to solve confrontations from Iran to Afghanistan.
Despite Clinton’s appeal, Berman went ahead with a hearing on the issue.
“Turkey is a vital and, in most respects, a loyal ally of the United States in a volatile region,” Berman, an influential member of Congress because of his chairmanship of the foreign affairs committee, said at the start of the hearing.
“Be that as it may, nothing justifies Turkey’s turning a blind eye to the reality of the Armenian genocide,” he added.
“Germany has accepted responsibility for the Holocaust. South Africa set up a Truth Commission to look at Apartheid. And here at home, we continue to grapple with the legacies of slavery and our horrendous treatment of Native Americans,” he added.
“It is now time for Turkey to accept the reality of the Armenian genocide.”
Muslim Turkey accepts that many Christian Armenians were killed by Ottoman forces but denies that up to 1.5 million died and that it amounted to genocide — a term employed by many Western historians and some foreign parliaments.
Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, said there was “no question horrible things happened,” but urged voting against the resolution.
“We need to have as many friends in that part of the world as possible. And Turkey has been a friend,” Burton said.
The non-binding resolution, to be voted on by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would call on Obama to ensure U.S. policy formally refers to the massacre as “genocide” and to use that term when he delivers his annual message on the issue in April — something Obama avoided doing last year.
The panel approved a similar bill in 2007 but it was never put to a full House vote amid fears it would alienate Turkey.
Similar resolutions have been introduced in many past sessions of Congress but have never passed both houses. Ronald Reagan was the only U.S. president to publicly call the killings genocide.
Additional reporting by Zerin Elci in Ankara, Writing by Thomas Grove and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Doina Chiacu