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Turkish trip intensifies dilemma for Obama

world Updated: Mar 13, 2009 11:38 IST
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Turkey has become so pivotal to US goals in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East that Barack Obama included it on his first overseas tour as president. But relations between the countries could be at risk unless Obama is willing to break a campaign promise.

Obama pledged to use the word "genocide" to describe the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks almost a century ago. Such a declaration would infuriate Turkey, which could complicate US military operations in the region by withholding cooperation. This is not an obscure historical debate that Obama can avoid easily.

It will be on the mind of government officials, media and the public when Obama arrives in Turkey on April 5.

Just weeks later, Obama must decide how to deal with the issue in a statement to mark the annual Armenian remembrance day, April 24. Also, a resolution will be introduced soon in the House of Representatives that describes the killings as genocide. The House almost passed a similar resolution two years ago, but congressional leaders did not bring it up for a vote after intense pressure from then-President George W Bush and top members of his administration. The Obama administration has not said what they will do on either the statement or the resolution. The State Department said it is considering the issue and the White House declined to comment directly on the genocide issue.

"At this moment, our focus is on how moving forward the US can help Turkey and Armenia work together to come to terms with the past," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman at the White House's National Security Council.

The emphasis dovetails with an argument that the Turkish government has been making: a US statement on genocide could scuttle current diplomatic attempts at rapprochement between Muslim Turkey and Christian Armenia. The distrustful neighbors have no diplomatic ties, and their border has been closed since 1993 because of a Turkish protest of Armenia's occupation of land claimed by Azerbaijan.

In September, Turkish President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia, where he and Armenian President Serge Sarkisian watched their countries' football teams play a World Cup qualifying match. The Armenian government appears to be interested in further talks. Armenian-American groups and supporters in Congress are focused on passing a genocide resolution and argue that it should not undermine diplomatic efforts.

Historians estimate that 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 denies that the deaths constituted genocide, however, contending the toll has been inflated, and the casualties were victims of civil war and unrest.

Previous presidents, including George W Bush and Bill Clinton avoided the word, even after committing in their campaigns to use it as president. Armenian groups are pointing to Obama's more extensive and unequivocal statements on the issue.

"The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence," Obama said in a statement on his campaign Web site in January 2008, 10 months before he was elected. "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president."

Other Obama administration officials, including his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made similar comments about the killings before joining the administration and have yet to comment since. Obama's trip inevitably will focus attention on the dispute. "The Obama administration was an in a very difficult position before the trip was announced," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Turkey research program. "With this trip, the expectations have been raised on the Turkish side that he will avoid use of the word genocide, and meanwhile, he we will almost certainly see increased pressure from the Armenian lobby prior to the trip."