- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

BERLIN German and U.S. officials were at odds yesterday over the validity of Berlin's strong opposition to military action against Iraq, with Washington dismissing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's stand as campaign rhetoric and saying he will show greater flexibility if he is re-elected on Sunday.

But close aides to Mr. Schroeder, both in his government and campaign, insisted that his anti-American position was not a tactical pre-election move and he will not change it should his Social Democratic Party (SPD) win a second term in office.

Although for different reasons, German and U.S. officials agreed that the current friction, which has helped the chancellor in the polls, will not damage the relationship between the two allies permanently.

"Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't happen," a State Department official said in reference to securing Germany's support for a military campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Of course, the Germans won't artificially constrain themselves before the election by saying they will change their position," the official said in a telephone interview from Washington.

"But once Schroeder is re-elected, they will exercise greater flexibility. The question is to secure their support in principle to win their hearts and minds and then we can deal with the specifics," he said.

He said the United States "values Germany's support in a war" against Iraq, because "there are American military bases there that we might want to use in one way or another."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered a similar view earlier this week, saying that "when countries are engaged in elections, people say things that they think they should say."

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Daniel Coats, addressing a business conference in Frankfurt yesterday, said he feared German-American relations were being damaged by Mr. Schroeder's opposition to military action against Iraq, Reuters news agency reported.

However, Mr. Coats, who was called in to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin two weeks ago after saying Germany's stance on Iraq was isolating it from the rest of the European Union, said he believed the differences between the allies could be overcome.

A senior strategist in Mr. Schroeder's campaign said the decision to break ranks with Washington "wasn't a tactical move," but a position consistent with Germany's "long peace tradition."

Asked why, then, Berlin sent troops to Afghanistan, he said the campaign against the Taliban regime was justified because the September 11 terrorist acts were "an attack on civilization."

A close aide to Mr. Schroeder said he fully realizes that he will have to stick to his views after the election.

At the same time, the aide said, there should be "no question about Germany's commitment to fighting terror," but only in an international coalition. However, regime change in Baghdad "is not on our priority list, and we are for containment," he said.

Mr. Schroeder's main opponent in the election, Edmund Stoiber of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has accused the chancellor of risking Germany's role as an active international player only to attract more votes in this weekend's close race.

The Iraq issue, as well as Mr. Schroeder's deft handling of last month's flood disaster in eastern Germany, has helped him eliminate Mr. Stoiber's earlier lead. Polls released yesterday indicated the election is headed for a close finish.

A survey taken by the Forsa institute found Mr. Schroeder's SPD at 40 percent compared with 38 percent for Mr. Stoiber's conservatives, Reuters reported. The poll has a 2.5 percent margin of error.

A rival poll by the conservative Allensbach Institute registered support for Mr. Stoiber's Christian Democrats at 37.3 percent, just ahead of the SPD at 37 percent.

Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations said that, even if Germany wanted to help the United States in Iraq, it "can't contribute too much" because "our transport and logistic capabilities are not very impressive."

"We'll have to take the tents and blankets of our guys in Afghanistan and the Balkans," he said in reference to the hundreds of German troops currently deployed to those regions as part of multinational forces.


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