Tuesday, January 10, 2006

BERLIN — Germany’s new conservative chancellor, Angela Merkel, is winning plaudits at home, but has soured the tone for her inaugural visit to Washington this week by bluntly criticizing the U.S. detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“An institution like Guantanamo in its present form cannot and must not exist in the long term,” Mrs. Merkel said a weekend interview published by the newsweekly Der Spiegel. “We must find different ways of dealing with prisoners. As far as I’m concerned there’s no question about that.”

The remark, following closely after a public disagreement with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month, suggests that Germany’s first female chancellor may not be the close ally the Bush administration had hoped for.

Mrs. Merkel backed President Bush’ decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 when she was still opposition leader, and she has pledged to repair the damage her Social Democrat predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, did to relations with the United States.

But the eastern German politician irked U.S. officials after a visit to Berlin by Miss Rice in December, when she said the American secretary had conceded the United States had erroneously detained a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, for five months in Afghanistan.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Miss Rice denied that any such admission had been made and said, “We are not quite sure what was in [Mrs. Merkel’s] head.”

The State Department was more restrained in response to Mrs. Merkel’s latest remark, saying the Guantanamo prison camp “serves a purpose, and it’s there for a reason.”

“It keeps people who are very dangerous away from civilized society,” said spokesman Sean McCormack. “Make no mistake about it — if these people were released, they would be right back in the fight.”

But the criticism has struck a chord in Germany, where it is being applauded by governing and opposition parties alike.

“We support Angela Merkel’s stance,” said Edmund Stoiber, leader of the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union, who argued that Mrs. Merkel was right to point out that the United States should review its practices in Guantanamo.

Less surprisingly, leaders of the center-left Social Democrats — who serve in Mrs. Merkel’s coalition — and opposition Greens were delighted by the comments. Greens leader Claudia Roth said they sent the “right signal” to President Bush ahead of her visit to Washington on Friday.

German commentators suggested that the chancellor was trying to defuse disagreements with her coalition partners over domestic issues, ranging from economic policy to nuclear power.

“It was partly a conciliatory gesture toward the Social Democrats,” said Frank Umbach, foreign-policy analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “But she was also reflecting concern among her conservatives that America’s image abroad has suffered in the war on terror.”

But he said the Der Spiegel remarks were unlikely to cause long-term damage to U.S.-German relations.

“Merkel is fundamentally pro-American, and Washington knows that,” he said. “She isn’t resorting to the megaphone diplomacy that marked Schroeder’s ties with Washington. She’s got more credibility there than Schroeder,” who won a second term in 2002 by fiercely criticizing the prospect of a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In the Der Spiegel interview, Mrs. Merkel said she would “certainly talk about the whole issue of combating terrorism” during her talks with Mr. Bush.

“But it’s also important to me, and I’ll make this clear during my visit, that our relationship with the United States is not reduced to questions of fighting terrorism and the Iraq war. German-American relations were so good for so many years because they extended deeply into the normal lives of people.”

Mrs. Merkel said she was committed to improving “the quality and substance of the German-American relationship.”

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