WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration, chafing over a House committee vote to label the deaths of Armenians a century ago as genocide, warned Thursday that passage could put U.S. troops in Iraq at risk, and said lawmakers’ time was better spent focused on problems here at home.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered to give House members a classified briefing to spell out what they called “national security interests” at stake.

And top military leaders – including Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – made calls to Capitol Hill describing potential repercussions of the congressional action.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gates and Rice warned that a move by France’s national assembly last year to condemn the Armenian deaths prompted Turkey to cancel contracts with the French military.

“A similar reaction by the elected government of Turkey to a House resolution could harm American troops in the field, constrain our ability to supply our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and significantly damage our efforts to promote reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey at a key turning point in their relations,” said Rice and Gates in the letter reviewed by the Associated Press.

They urged Pelosi to refrain from allowing the resolution to reach the House floor for a vote.

White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel, meanwhile, reiterated that the vote by the House Foreign Affairs Committee approving the resolution would be problematic for American efforts in the Middle East.

“While the House is debating the Ottoman Empire, they are not moving forward with appropriations bills,” said Stanzel. “The House has not appointed conferees, they aren’t coming to the table to discuss children’s health care, and they haven’t permanently closed the intelligence gap that will open up when the Protect America Act expires.”

The administration is trying to soothe Turkish anger over the vote.

The foreign affairs panel defied warnings by President Bush with its 27-21 vote Wednesday to send the nonbinding measure to the full House for a vote.

The administration will now try to pressure Democratic leaders not to schedule a vote, though it is expected to pass.

In Ankara, the Turkish government wasted little time before reacting. Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Bilman said Thursday that the ambassador to Washington, Nabi Sensoy, was being recalled for consultations. Also, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, was invited to the Foreign Ministry and was told by Turkish officials of their “unease” over the resolution.

Hours before the vote, Bush and his top two Cabinet members and other senior officials made last-minute appeals to lawmakers to reject the measure.

“Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror,” Bush said.

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul criticized the decision to move the measure toward a vote in the House.

“Unfortunately, some politicians in the United States have once again sacrificed important matters to petty domestic politics despite all calls to common sense,” said Gul, according to the state-run news agency Anatolia. “This unacceptable decision by the committee, like its predecessors, has no validity or respectability for the Turkish nation.”

In London Thursday, Gates told reporters the measure will damage U.S.-Turkish relations at a time when U.S. forces in Iraq are relying heavily on Turkish permission to use their airspace for U.S. air cargo flights.

Pelosi, however, told reporters there never has been a good time for the Armenian resolution, versions of which have been offered repeatedly.

“I’ve been in Congress for 20 years, and for 20 years people have been saying the same thing” about the timing being bad, she said. Turkey was seen as having a strategic position in the Cold War as well as the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the current Iraq war.

“Why do it now? Because there’s never a good time and all of us in the Democratic leadership have supported” it, she said.

The House vote came as Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked suspected positions of Kurdish rebels near Iraq on Wednesday, a possible prelude to a cross-border operation that the Bush administration has opposed. The United States, already preoccupied with efforts to stabilize other areas of Iraq, believes that Turkish intervention in the relatively peaceful north could further destabilize the country.

The committee’s vote was a triumph for well-organized Armenian-American interest groups who have lobbied Congress for decades to pass a resolution.

Following the debate and vote, which was attended by aging Armenian emigres who lived through the atrocities in what is now Turkey in their youth, the interest groups said they would fight to ensure approval by the full House.

“It is long past time for the U.S. government to acknowledge and affirm this horrible chapter of history – the first genocide of the 20th century and a part of history that we must never forget,” said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.

AP-ES-10-11-07 1855EDT

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