Turkey Warns US on Armenian Genocide Bill

ISTANBUL (Reuters)–Turkey warned the United States on Thursday that its jets could lose the use of a Turkish base to patrol northern Iraq if Congress backs a charge of Turkish genocide against Armenia’s 85 years ago.

The government-backed warning reflects weeks of growing anger in Turkey at its main NATO ally over the genocide charges.

A US House of Representatives panel this week approved a non-binding resolution urging President Bill Clinton to acknowledge the killing of Armenia’s in 1915 as “genocide.”

Ankara angrily denies genocide and says thousands died on both sides in partisan fighting as the Ottoman empire collapsed. It has urged the full House to reject the measure.

The row could weaken US policy on Iraq and possibly hit lucrative arms tenders.

US and British jets flying from the airbase at Incirlik in southern Turkey have enforced a no-fly zone over neighboring northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War ended and are a key part of the US policy of containing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The group chairman of all five parties in the Turkish parliament on Thursday pointed out that the six-month mandate for US operations at Incirlik was up for renewal on December 30–suggesting renewal was not a foregone conclusion.

“It is clear that the Turkish Grand National Assembly will evaluate the extension of Operation Northern Watch in the framework of changing conditions,” the statement said.

Turkey also makes frequent ground and air incursions into northern Iraq to strike at Kurdish rebels based there.

Cooperation at the base–which conducts reconnaissance and intelligence gathering in addition to bombing raids under Operation Northern Watch–is likely of use to Turkey in planning its operations in the Kurdish enclave of Iraq.

Approval of the US genocide resolution would “make it difficult to continue the cooperation between Turkey and the US in today’s atmosphere of joint spirit and understanding,” Turkish parliament leaders said in a statement on Thursday.

A government spokesman backed the cross-party warning.

“The cabinet has decided that the statement by the parties is very much appropriate and we fully share it,” spokesman Rustu Kazim Yucelen told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Turkey announced on Wednesday it planned to appoint an ambassador to Iraq and allow medical aid flights to Baghdad–moves that would anger Washington.

Turkey and the United States have close diplomatic and military ties dating back to the Cold War. Turkey is a major buyer of US arms and backed operations against Iraq in 1991.

Turkish newspapers have reported that Ankara planned to make other possible moves–including withdrawal from planned negotiations with US company Bell Textron to buy 145 attack helicopters in a $4.5 billion tender.

“An (action) plan drawn up by the prime minister and foreign minister in consultation with the cabinet will be announced to the public when the time comes,” said Yucelen.

Turkish police on Thursday said they had arrested a Syriac priest after he allegedly told newspapers his Christian minority community had been the victims of genocide carried out by Turks.

Police in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir told Reuters they had detained and questioned Father Yusuf Akbulut about stories in Turkish newspapers quoting him as saying Turks had systematically killed Syriac Christians in the southeast.

Police said a prosecutor had freed Akbulut–who denied having claimed his community had suffered genocide at the hands of Turks. Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim.

A few thousand Syriac Christians–among the world’s oldest denominations–live in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast–formerly the site of fierce conflict between Turkish forces and separatist Kurdish rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party.

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