A Congressional committee last night defied George Bush, voting through a resolution describing the 1915 slaughter of Armenians as a genocide - a move the White House says would severely damage relations with Turkey, a vital ally in the Iraq war.
"This resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings," the President told reporters, hours before the House Foreign Affairs Committee met to consider the measure. Instead, the majority-Democrat panel passed it by 27 votes to 21. Barring an abrupt about-face by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has long backed the resolution, it will now come to a vote by the full House. There, 226 members, more than a majority, have already signed up as co-sponsors.
In one sense, the showdown is a re-run of an argument that has periodically endangered ties between Washington and Ankara. But as joint letters to Ms Pelosi from all eight living former secretaries of state and three former defense secretaries testify, rarely have the diplomatic stakes been higher, and never have the prospects of passage been greater.
The confrontation between the White House and Congress comes at the worst possible moment, just as the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is close to authorising a major incursion into northern Iraq to strike Kurdish rebels, after 15 Turkish soldiers were killed in fighting in recent days.
Last week, Mr Erdogan telephoned Mr Bush to complain about the Armenian resolution, and warn that, if it passed, Turkey would take retaliatory action. Reprisals could bring a slowdown or even halt to supplies to US forces in Iraq that currently transit through Incirlik airbase in eastern Turkey, and possibly see the withdrawal of thousands of Turkish workers and support staff in Iraq.
"This is a choice between condemning genocide and endangering our soldiers in Iraq," was how Tom Lantos, Democratic chairman of the House committee and himself a Jewish Holocaust survivor, summed up the dilemma. For its part, the White House is pleading with Mr Erdogan not to send troops into mainly Kurdish northern Iraq, and risk destabilising the country's most peaceful region.
Passage of the resolution would inflict "great harm to our relations with a key ally in Nato and in the global war on terror," Mr Bush stressed yesterday. In their letter, the former secretaries of state warned that, although the resolution is non-binding, its passage would " endanger our national security interests".
Ankara has spared no effort either. A high-level delegation from its parliament has been on Capitol Hill this week, warning that military co-operation would be jeopardised. The Turkish embassy is paying more than $300,000 (£150,000) a month to top lobbying firms to achieve that end.
The crucial language in the resolution - officially titled the Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide - calls on Mr Bush, in his traditional annual presidential message delivered every 24 April on the events of 90 years ago, to "accurately characterise the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide."
The Turks flatly reject such a description, claiming instead that, although hundreds of thousands of Armenians may have perished, the deaths resulted from forced movements of population and fighting as the Ottoman Empire collapsed during the First World War. Vast numbers of Turks also died, they say.
Genocide, says Nabi Sensoy, the ambassador to the US, "is the greatest accusation of all against humanity. You cannot expect any nation to accept that label."
No one is in a trickier position than Ms Pelosi. Her San Francisco district has a large Armenian population, and she has long called for passage of a resolution specifically condemning genocide. Now she faces a choice between defying the White House, and backing down.
© 2007 The Independent