Bush urges rejection of "genocide" bill

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Just hours before a crucial vote, President George W. Bush strongly urged the U.S. Congress on Wednesday to reject legislation that would declare the World War I-era killings of hundreds of thousands of Armenians a genocide.

Mr. Bush spoke as the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee was preparing to vote on the measure that Turkey insists could severely damage U.S. relations with a NATO ally that has been a major portal for U.S. military operations in the region.

"Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror," the president said.

Shortly before the president spoke, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates stood before microphones on the White House driveway to express the administration's concerns.

"The passage of this resolution at this time would be very problematic for everything we are trying to do in the Middle East," Rice said.

Gates said that 70 percent of U.S. air cargo headed for Iraq goes through Turkey, as does about a third of the fuel used by the U.S. military in Iraq.

"Access to air fields and to the roads and so on in Turkey would very much be put at risk if this resolution passes and Turkey reacts as strongly as we believe they will," Gates said. He also said that 95 percent of the newly purchased Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles are flying through Turkey to get to Iraq.

Turkey made a final direct appeal to U.S. lawmakers to reject the resolution. The U.S. vote comes as Turkey's government was seeking parliamentary approval for a cross-border military operation to chase separatist Kurdish rebels who operate from bases in northern Iraq. The move, opposed by the United States, could open a new war front in the most stable part of Iraq.

"I have been trying to warn the (U.S.) lawmakers not to make a historic mistake," said Egemen Bagis, a close foreign policy adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A measure of the potential problem came in a warning the U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued Tuesday to U.S. citizens in Turkey of "demonstrations and other manifestations of anti-Americanism throughout Turkey" if the bill passes the committee and gets to the House floor for a vote, the embassy statement said.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Turks marched to U.S. missions in Turkey to protest the bill. In Ankara, members of the left-wing Workers' Party chanted anti-American slogans in front of the embassy, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported. A group of about 200 people staged a similar protest in front of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, private NTV television said.

Anatolia quoted a party official as saying that the "genocide claim was an international, imperialist and a historical lie."

The basic dispute involves the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians 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 denies that the deaths constituted genocide, says the toll has been inflated, and insists that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Armenian-American interest groups also have been rallying supporters in the large diaspora community to pressure lawmakers to make sure that a successful committee vote leads to consideration by the full House.

The bill seemed to have enough support on the committee for passage, but the majority was slight and some backers said they feared that Turkish pressure would narrow it. Most Republicans, who are a minority on the committee, were expected to vote against the resolution.

On Tuesday, Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, sought to shore up support in letters to the committee's chairman, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., and its ranking Republican member, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

"We have a unique opportunity in this Congress, while there are still survivors of the Armenian genocide living among us, to irrevocably and unequivocally reaffirm this fact of history," he said.

Posted by LS

CBS and Associated Press contributed to this report.