Key US Democrats oppose Armenian bill

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WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) Key Democrats in the US House of Representatives joined Republicans to warn that a resolution calling the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks genocide could harm US strategic interests.

But despite the rebuff, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, did not back away from plans to hold a full House vote sometime this year.

Pelosi also came under more pressure from President George W Bush, who had publicly criticized the resolution last week before it passed a House committee. Bush telephoned Pelosi yesterday and asked her not to bring the resolution to the House floor, her office said.

''The president and the speaker exchanged candid views on the subject and the speaker explained the strong bipartisan support in the House for the resolution,'' a Pelosi spokesman said.

The nonbinding, largely symbolic resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee tomorrow despite opposition from the White House, Pentagon and former secretaries of state from both parties.

It infuriated NATO ally Turkey, which hinted it might halt logistic support to US troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan if the bill passes.

Turkey calls the resolution insulting and rejects the Armenian position, backed by many Western historians, that up to 1.5 million Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks during World War One. Turkey has recalled its ambassador for consultations over the matter.

Democrats, including Rep John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a longtime member of Pelosi's inner circle, urged her not to bring the proposal to the floor and Republicans called the resolution another ''irresponsible'' foray into foreign policy.

When she traveled to Syria in April, Pelosi drew withering criticism for visiting a country the State Department accuses of sponsoring terrorism. The Armenian resolution prompted criticism from analysts and editorial writers, too.

''I've known about their position for a long time,'' Pelosi said when asked whether the resistance from Murtha and another leading Democrat on defense matters, Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, would cause her to reconsider.

The resolution was introduced earlier this year by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, a Californian with a strong Armenian-American presence in his district.

SIMILAR PROPOSALS Armenian-Americans have been pushing for passage of similar proposals for years. Ronald Reagan, a Californian, was the only president to publicly call the killings genocide. Others have avoided the term out of concern for Turkey's sensitivities.

Murtha's office announced he would join other Democrats at a news conference today to explain why they opposed a vote on the resolution. Through a spokesman, Murtha stressed the importance of Turkey's role in US West Asia efforts.

''From my discussions with our military commanders and foreign policy experts, I believe that this resolution could harm our relations with Turkey and therefore our strategic interests in the region,'' Murtha said.

The United States is highly dependent on Turkey's Incirlik air base. About 70 per cent of the US military air cargo into Iraq transits that base, according to the Defense Department.

House aides said Murtha had written to Pelosi in February arguing against bringing the resolution to the floor.

Skelton, Armed Services Committee chairman, last week added another concern -- that the resolution could hinder a US pullout from Iraq, a goal of many Democrats including Pelosi.

The Pentagon said yesterday it was drafting plans to bring supplies into Iraq and Afghanistan from other locations, but it would be more costly than supplying through Turkey.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, reacted angrily to suggestions that the resolution was part of a Democratic plan to pressure Bush on Iraq by sowing tensions with Turkey, saying there was ''zero truth in that.'' The Wall Street Journal editorial page suggested Pelosi might be seeking to ''take down'' US policy in Iraq with the Armenian genocide resolution. Some analysts said Congress was shooting itself in the foot with the bill.

REUTERS CS BST0502

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