WASHINGTON — Two Nevada lawmakers have co-sponsored a bill blaming a former Turkish government for the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians almost a century ago.
But they disagree on whether now is the right time to press ahead with the controversial measure.
Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Jon Porter, R-Nev., support a bill that ties the Ottoman Empire to the killing and forced relocations of Armenians between 1915 and 1923, and declares that the episode amounted to “genocide.”
The bill has 211 co-sponsors. Supporters say it would be a powerful and symbolic gesture by the U.S. government. But the Bush administration has said it opposes the bill because it would damage relations with Turkey, a key ally.
Turkey withdrew its ambassador to the United States on Oct. 11, the day after the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the bill. Turkey further warned that it might reduce military cooperation with the United States.
Many Iraq war supplies go through Turkey, and the United States has been urging Turkey not to follow through on threats of military incursions into northern Iraq in response to attacks by Kurdish rebels.
The Turkish government rejects the “genocide” label, saying wartime privations and atrocities by both sides caused large numbers of Turkish and Armenian casualties.
House leaders have hesitated to set a final vote on the resolution. On Wednesday, its main sponsors, led by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to delay it.
“We believe that a large majority of our colleagues want to support a resolution recognizing the genocide on the House floor and that they will do so, provided the timing is more favorable,” the sponsors said.
Berkley said the resolution should move forward. “I don’t appreciate the threats from the Turkish government,” she said. “I don’t think that is good behavior from a good ally.”
She said the dispute is only the most recent incarnation of a historic dispute.
“I was here four years ago, and then two years ago, and I am hearing the same arguments on timing now,” she said. “There is no good time for the Turks on this.”
Berkley said she did not believe U.S.-Turkish relations would be irreparably damaged if the resolution passed.
Porter said he continued to support the bill but “the timing was not right.”
“I think genocide is genocide, and I think it is important this reflects that. There is no way to argue that (genocide) did not occur,” he said.
Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., did not respond to calls this week for his thoughts on the bill.
Andy Armenian, treasurer and board member of the Armenian-American Cultural Society of Las Vegas, said he did not think Congress should delay action. He said recognition from other countries had not irreparably damaged relations with Turkey, most notably France, with which Turkey previously threatened to cut ties.
“To this day, Turkey and France still have relations,” said Armenian, whose grandfather disappeared during the period.
John Dadaian, chairman of the Las Vegas Armenian Genocide Commemoration, said both his parents were survivors. “There is not an Armenian living in the U.S. who has not been affected by the genocide,” he said.
“The longer (recognition) is delayed, the more it becomes a problem,” said Dadaian. “We cannot be tolerant of (genocide) anywhere in the world.”
Turkish-Americans bristle at the idea of classifying the deaths as genocide. “The Turkish people do not believe this was a genocide. The records are open. There have been horrible massacres on both sides, but this was not a planned event like the Nazis,” said Oya Bain, secretary-general of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations.
Bain said the U.S. government should take Turkey’s warnings seriously. The Turkish government would have no choice but to carry out its threats for fear that its own people would become enraged at an “unfair, inaccurate distortion,” Bain said.
Contact reporter Jason C. Green at email@example.com or (202) 783-1760.