ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey ordered its ambassador in Washington to return to Turkey for consultations over a U.S. House panel's approval of a bill describing the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians as genocide, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday.
The ambassador would stay in Turkey for about a week or 10 days for discussions about the measure, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Bilman.
"We are not withdrawing our ambassador. We have asked him to come to Turkey for some consultations," he said. "The ambassador was given instructions to return and will come at his earliest convenience."
State Department spokesman Tom Casey, said he was unaware of Turkey's decision, but said the United States wants to continue to have good relations with Turkey.
"I'll let the Turkish government speak for itself," he said. "I think that the Turkish government has telegraphed for a long time, has been very vocal and very public about its concerns about this and has said that they did intend to act in very forceful way if this happens."
Private NTV television said Turkey's naval commander had canceled a planned trip to the United States over the bill.
Earlier, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, was invited to the Foreign Ministry, where Turkish officials conveyed their "unease" over the bill and asked that the Bush administration do all in its power to stop the bill from passing in the full House, a Foreign Ministry official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make press statements.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill Wednesday despite intense lobbying by Turkish officials and opposition from President Bush. The vote was a triumph for well-organized Armenian-American interest groups who have lobbied Congress for decades to pass a resolution. The administration will now try to pressure Democratic leaders in Congress not to schedule a vote, although it is expected to pass.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated his opposition to the resolution Thursday, saying the measure could hurt relations at a time when U.S. forces in Iraq rely heavily on Turkish permission to use their airspace for U.S. air cargo flights.
Relations are already strained by accusations that the U.S. is unwilling to help Turkey fight Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq.
About 70 percent of U.S. air cargo headed for Iraq goes through Turkey, as does about one-third of the fuel used by the U.S. military in Iraq. U.S. bases also get water and other supplies by land from Turkish truckers who cross into the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying that the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.
"It is not possible to accept such an accusation of a crime which was never committed by the Turkish nation," the Turkish government said Thursday. "It is blatantly obvious that the House Committee on Foreign Affairs does not have a task or function to rewrite history by distorting a matter which specifically concerns the common history of Turks and Armenians."
Armenian President Robert Kocharian welcomed the vote, saying: "We hope this process will lead to a full recognition by the United States of America ... of the genocide."
Speaking to reporters Thursday after meeting European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Kocharian also appealed to Turkey to join talks on restoring bilateral relations.
Turkey is under no pressure from the EU to call the Armenian killings genocide. The European Commission criticized France last year when that country's lower house voted to make it a crime to deny the killings were genocide. The upper house did not take up the bill, so it never became law.
Turkey has warned that relations with the United States will suffer if the bill passes, but has not specified possible repercussions. U.S. diplomats have been quietly preparing Turkish officials for weeks for the likelihood that the resolution would pass, asking for a muted response.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the Turks "have not been threatening anything specific" in response to the vote, and that he hopes the "disappointment can be limited to statements."
Turkey ended its military ties with France over its bill last year. But a decision to cut far more expansive military ties with the United States could have serious consequences for Turkey's standing as a reliable ally of the West.
"I don't think that Turkey will go so far as to put in doubt its whole network of allied relations with the United States," said Ruben Safrastian, director of the Institute of Eastern Studies of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. "In the end, not only is the United States interested in Turkey, but Turkey is interested in the United States."
Adding to tensions, Turkey is considering launching a military offensive into Iraq against the Kurdish rebels — a move the United States strongly opposes because it could destabilize one of the few relatively peaceful areas in Iraq.
Iraq's Kurdish region is heavily dependent on trade with Turkey, which provides the region with electricity and oil products. Annual trade at Habur gate, the main border crossing, is more than $10 billion.
In a recent letter, Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned there would be "serious troubles" if Congress adopted the measure. He reacted quickly Wednesday, saying "some politicians in the United States have once again sacrificed important matters to petty domestic politics despite all calls to common sense."
Turkish newspapers denounced the decision. "27 foolish Americans," the daily Vatan said on its front-page headline, in reference to legislators who voted for the bill.
Hurriyet called the resolution: "Bill of hatred."
The U.S. Embassy urged Americans in Turkey to be alert for violent repercussions. Wilson said he regretted the committee's decision and said he hoped it would not be passed by the House.