ANKARA, Turkey -- President Obama on Monday declined to repeat his claim that the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians during World War I was a "genocide," stepping back from his campaign pledge to Armenian Americans that the "widely documented fact" would be fully commemorated during his presidency.
During a joint news conference alongside Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Obama said he did not want to "focus on my views" or in any way interfere with delicate negotiations between Turks and Armenians on what the president called "a whole host of issues."
Obama sidestepped the issue -- a key tension point between Turks and Armenians and a rallying cry among Armenian-Americans -- saying he was trying to be as "encouraging as possible."
"I want to be as encouraging as possible around those negotiations, which are moving forward and could bear fruit very quickly, very soon," Obama said. "What I want to do is not focus on my views right now but focus on the views of the Turkish and Armenian people. What I told the (Turkish) president is I want to be as constructive as possible in moving these issues forward quickly. My sense is that they are moving quickly. I don't want to, as the president of the United States, want to preempt any possible arrangements, announcements that might be made in the near future."
When asked if his views had changed or he was tempering them in light of the fragile Turkish-Armenian talks, Obama said he is not interested in "tilting these negotiations one way or another while they are having useful discussions."
Later during a speech to the Turkish parliament, Obama said he supports a full "normalization" of relations between Turkey and Armenia.
During the campaign, Obama was emphatic about the history of Turkish aggression against Armenians from 1915-1923 as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing and the bloodshed from World War I -- in which the Ottomans allied with the Germans -- spread across the continent.
On the Obama campaign Web site, the former Illinois senator said the following:
"I also share with Armenian Americans -- so many of whom are descended from genocide survivors -- a principled commitment to commemorating and ending genocide. That starts with acknowledging the tragic instances of genocide in world history. As a U.S. senator, I have stood with the Armenian American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide."
Obama protested Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans for his use of the term "genocide" to describe Turkey's actions.
Also from the Obama campaign Web site: "I shared with Secretary Rice my firmly held conviction that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy ... and as president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide."
The Armenian Assembly of America said Obama did nothing to reverse his position, quoting the president saying that "my views are on the record and I have not changed views." It added that the assembly expects a solid statement of support from Obama on April 24, the day Armenians commemorate the "genocide."
"For the first time, a U.S. president has delivered a direct message to Turkish officials in their own country that he stands behind his steadfast support and strong record of affirmation of the Armenian Genocide," said AAA Executive Director Bryan Ardouny. "On April 24, the assembly looks forward to President Obama's statement reaffirming the Armenian Genocide."
For his part, Gul called the Armenian drive for Turkish recognition of the genocide "an issue under great discussion," adding it "is not a political issue but a historical one." Turkey has pledged to cooperate in a historical commission to evaluate the evidence.
"We should let the historians handle this," Gul said.