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U.S.-Turkish Relations Strained Over Iraq and Armenian "Genocide"


U.S.-Turkish relations are in an extremely delicate phase. A member of NATO, Turkey is a key U.S. ally on whom Washington depends for logistical support in the Middle East and as a bridge to the Muslim world. Earlier this week Turkey’s parliament voted to authorize cross-border military operations into Iraq against the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, as the ethnic separatist movement is also known. Turkey blames Iraqi-based rebels of the PKK for attacks that have killed about 30 Turkish soldiers and civilians in the past few weeks. But Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih has warned Ankara that a unilateral military operation across the border would have “grave consequences” that could destabilize Iraq and the region. Washington has also urged Turkey not to resort to military action.

Turkish journalist Ali Aslan, Washington correspondent for Zaman newspaper, says that the current problems in U.S.-Turkish relations are not new. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Aslan explains that they began with the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003. He reminds that Turkey refused at that time to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish territory, which represented the first time that Turkey had said no to a “major U.S. demand.” Furthermore, Mr. Aslan says, Ankara believes the United States has an obligation to help contain the PKK in northern Iraq by putting pressure on the Kurdish leadership there. He acknowledges that Washington is now in a difficult position – having to choose between its ally and friend, Turkey, and its need for “relative stability” in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Meanwhile the Iraqi-Kurdish issue has been enormously complicated by Turkey’s strong objection to support in a U.S. congressional committee for a non-binding resolution condemning as “genocide” the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago. During that tumultuous period from 1915 to 1923, when the Ottoman Empire was collapsing and the Russian Empire was transitioning to Soviet communist rule, Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe says, 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have died in mass killings that “historians have generally accepted as genocide.”

Nonetheless, Turkey rejects this interpretation, arguing that the mass killings were an unfortunate consequence of civil war. Furthermore, Ankara objects to the U.S. Congress weighing in on a matter that they believe is better left to historians. But U.S. domestic politics is also a factor in the controversy. The strong Armenian-American lobby has been fighting for a genocide resolution for decades, and some members of Congress with Armenian-American constituents in their districts continue to back the resolution.

Indeed some critics of the resolution say that, even if what happened to the Armenians was tantamount to genocide, they think it is unwise for Congress to pass such a resolution at a time when smooth relations with Turkey are critical to the U.S. effort in Iraq. Worried about antagonizing Turkish leaders, members of both political parties are now withdrawing their support for the resolution. Many U.S. lawmakers now think passage of the resolution would be extremely ill timed and worry that Ankara might deny American access to critical military facilities in Turkey that are needed to continue supplying U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.

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