Turkish army chief says US ties at risk

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ANKARA, Oct 14 (Reuters) Turkey's powerful military chief said today if the US Congress approved a resolution branding the 1915 killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks genocide ties between the NATO allies would never be the same again.

Ankara is a crucial ally for Washington, which relies on Turkey as a logistical base for the war in Iraq.

Some analysts believe the vote could weaken Washington's influence over Turkey and increase the likelihood of a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish separatist rebels, who use the territory to stage attacks into Turkey.

''If the resolution that has passed in the US committee is accepted by the assembly of the House of Representatives our military relations with the United States can never be the same again,'' chief of General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, told newspaper Milliyet in his first public comments on the issue.

''We could not explain this to Turkish public opinion.'' The Turkish government is to seek approval from parliament this week for a major operation against separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants based in the Iraqi mountains.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday she had urged the Turkish government to refrain from any major military operation in northern Iraq. US officials fear such a move could destabilise a relatively peaceful area of Iraq.

Turkish artillery fired seven to eight shells into a village in northern Iraq late yesterday, witnesses said, the latest bout of regular shelling of the mountainous border area where separatist guerrillas are believed to hide out.

AMBASSADOR RECALLED Ankara recalled its ambassador from the United States for consultations after the US congressional committee vote, which was condemned in predominantly Muslim but secular Turkey.

The non-binding Armenian bill now goes to the floor of the House, where Democrat leaders say there will be a vote next month. The resolution, the culmination of decades of pressure, was proposed by a lawmaker who represents many Armenian-Americans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a long-time supporter of such a move.

Potential retaliatory moves by Turkey could include blocking US access to the Incirlik air base, cancelling procurement contracts, denying airspace to US aircraft and halting joint military exercises, diplomats say.

''I'm the chief of General Staff. I deal with security issues, I'm not a politician ... in this respect the United States has shot itself in the foot,'' Buyukanit said.

Turkey 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 in World War One.

Patriarch Mesrob II, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of Turkey's Armenians, was quoted by state-run Anatolian news agency as saying his community opposed the US bill. He has long called for dialogue to deal with past injustices.

Two senior US officials visited Ankara yesterday for talks with Turkish officials to try to ease tensions.

REUTERS SYU RAI2152

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