ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey swiftly condemned a House panel's approval of a bill describing the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians as genocide, and newspapers blasted the measure on their front pages Thursday.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill Wednesday by a 27-21 vote despite intense lobbying by Turkish officials. The committee's vote was a triumph for well-organized Armenian-American interest groups who have lobbied Congress for decades to pass a resolution. President Bush warned that it could harm U.S.-Turkish relations, already stretched by accusations that Washington is unwilling to help Ankara crack down on Kurdish rebels based in Iraq.
"Unfortunately, some politicians in the United States have once again sacrificed important matters to petty domestic politics despite all calls to common sense," President Abdullah Gul said late Wednesday.
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."
However, speaking to reporters Thursday after meeting EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Kocharian also appealed to Turkey to join talks on restoring bilateral relations.
Gul said in a recent letter there would be "serious troubles" if Congress adopted the measure. Many analysts have pointed out that a public backlash in the key NATO ally could lead to restrictions on crucial supply routes to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the closure of the U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik.
"Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror," Bush said of the bill.
Turkey also is considering launching a military offensive into Iraq against the Kurdish rebels, which could destabilize one of the few relatively peaceful areas in the country.
The Turkish government condemned the panel's vote in a statement early Thursday.
"It is not possible to accept such an accusation of a crime which was never committed by the Turkish nation," the statement said. "It is blatantly obvious that the House Committee on Foreign Affairs does not have a task or function to re-write history by distorting a matter which specifically concerns the common history of Turks and Armenians."
Turkish newspapers also denounced the decision.
"27 foolish Americans," the daily Vatan said on its front-page headline, in reference to legislators who voted in favor.
Hurriyet called the resolution: "Bill of hatred."
The U.S. Embassy urged Americans in Turkey to be alert for violent repercussions.
Ambassador Ross Wilson said he regretted the committee's decision and said he hoped it would not be passed by the House.
"I sincerely hope the resolution will not be passed and will continue my efforts to convince members of Congress not to approve it," he said.
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.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said passage of the resolution by the House would gravely harm U.S.-Turkish relations and U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East.
"The United States recognizes the immense suffering of the Armenian people due to mass killings and forced deportations at the end of the Ottoman Empire," McCormack said in a statement. "We support a full and fair accounting of the atrocities that befell as many as 1.5 million Armenians during World War I" — which he said the measure doesn't do.
U.S. diplomats have been quietly preparing Turkish officials for weeks for the likelihood that the resolution would pass, and 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."
After France voted last year to make it a crime to deny the killings were genocide, the Turkish government ended its military ties with that country.