Turkey recalls ambassador after US vote on Armenian 'genocide'

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The Independent Online

Turkey recalled its ambassador from Washington last night in repsonse to a US Congressional decision to label the First World War-era killings of Armenians as genocide.

Despite intense lobbying by Turkey and a last-gasp intervention by the US President George Bush, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill on Wednesday by a 27-21 vote – in a move seen as an insult by most Turks.

Turkey's Foreign ministry said the ambassador would return to Turkey for a stay of "a week or 10 days". "We are not withdrawing our ambassador," said a ministry spokesman Levent Bilman. "We have asked him to come to Turkey for some consultations."

In a statement yesterday, the Turkish government condemned the vote: "It is not possible to accept such an accusation of a crime which was never committed by the Turkish nation".

"27 foolish Americans," ran the front page of the Turkish daily Vatan, in reference to legislators who voted in favour of the bill. Hurriyet called the resolution a "Bill of hatred".

President Abdullah Gül said: "Unfortunately, some politicians in the US have once again sacrificed important matters to petty domestic politics despite all calls to common sense."

Members of the left-wing Workers' Party laid a black wreath in front of the US Embassy building in Ankara and drew a crescent-and-star on its wall in protest at the resolution.

The vote was a body-blow to attempts by politicians and diplomats behind the scenes in Washington and Ankara to put Turkish-American relations back on a normal footing. The two countries have been on bad terms since March 2003 when a group of rebels in the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) joined with the opposition to thwart government attempts to get authority for Turkey to support the invasion of Iraq from the north. A few months later, parliament reversed its decision but by then the US was no longer interested in support from the Turks.

Over the past three years, hard-line conservatives in the US administration have not forgiven the Turks for not doing what the US expects of an ally. Turkish public opinion, horrified by the nearby violence in Iraq, has been equally uncomplimentary with TV dramas and novels attacking the US enjoying an enthusiastic reception.

Yet in both countries, many politicians have been searching for ways to mend the damage, believing that the two countries need each other. Both Mr Gül, while serving as Foreign minister, and the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have made several visits to Washington.

Apart from leading to a squeeze on US use of the Incirlik base in Turkey and air and surface transit, the resolution could open the way for a Turkish military incursion into Iraq to halt PKK attacks on targets in south-east Turkey creating confrontation between Turkey and the US.

Sixteen Turkish soldiers have died in the past week in south-east Turkey as a result of PKK attacks. Several hundred more have been killed since the US-led invasion of Iraq which was followed by a revival of the PKK's fortunes.

Against this background, the resolution could be the straw which broke the camel's back for Turkish-US relations. There are several strands to the Turkish refusal to tolerate even a non-binding Congressional resolution. They include national resentment at what is seen as a climate of institutional prejudice against Turkey in Western societies; anger at the assassination of more than 40 Turkish diplomats by Armenians in the 1970s and 1980s; the expulsion of 800,000 to 1 million Azerbaijani Muslims from their homes in the Caucasus in the 1990s by Armenian nationalist forces; and suspicion that compensation claims may follow some day. Around half of Turkey's population are the descendants of Muslims forced out of what are now Christian lands and regard Western partiality for Armenians as outrageous.

Attitudes are unlikely to soften. News of the vote coincided with reports that two Turkish Armenians, Arat Dink and Serkis Seropian, had been given one-year suspended jail sentences in in Istanbul for "belittling Turkishness" in an Istanbul Armenian-language newspaper.

Mr Erdogan's riposte to Washington has been to ask parliament for powers to send Turkish troops into Iraq. If recent PKK attacks continue, pressure to act will be hard to resist, not least since a Turkish-US confrontation would be popular in parts of the Muslim world as well as at home. Even if an incursion into Iraq can be avoided, prospects for getting the Turkish-US partnership back into working order look more distant than ever, a fact which will hamper Western chances of restoring stability in the Middle East.

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