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Europe

Friends and Foes Question Schröder's Support of U.S.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's pledge to allow the United States to use its bases in Germany during its war against Iraq is sending a quiver through his coalition. Two Greens want a court to study the matter.

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Eye on the screen: A crew member of an AWACS plane.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a leading opponent of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, came under additional pressure on Thursday from political allies and opponents over the support he has pledged to American forces.

At issue is Schröder's decision to allow the United States to use its military bases in Germany and German airspace to conduct operations against Iraq, and his decision to deploy German air crews to a NATO air surveillance mission over Turkey, the only alliance member to border Iraq.

On Wednesday, the day before the United States opened its war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Schröder defended his decisions in an address to parliament.

"There may indeed be different opinions on international law," the chancellor said. "But because of our obligations to (NATO), we will permit the use of the bases, will not ban the use of German airspace, and we will naturally provide security for the facilities of our friends."

Greens troubled by pledge

Such an explanation does not sit well with at least two members of the Green Party, Schröder's junior coalition partner. In a newspaper interview published on Thursday, Hans-Christian Ströbele stepped up his campaign to block the use of the bases. "We are thinking about ways that we can bring the issue before the Federal Constitutional Court," Ströbele said in the interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper. Should the war be determined to be a breach of international law, "then the federal government would have to ensure that Germany did not provide any sort of support for it," said Ströbele, a member of the German parliament.

Winfried Hermann

Winfried Hermann

Ströbele won support for a possible legal case before Germany's highest court from another member of the Greens who sits in the parliament. The lawmaker, Winfried Hermann, (photo) said Germany should determine whether it really had to fullfil its NATO obligations if one of the alliance's members was employing a war-based foreign policy.

The United States has about 75,000 servicemembers scattered around the southern half of western Germany. Facilities of particular importance in the war could include the Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases, which could play roles in supply and fighter operations. No spokesman at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, the top American military headquarters in Europe, was available on Thursday to say whether the bases in Germany had been used in the conflict.

Another member of the Greens, Volker Beck, played down the criticism coming out of the parliamentary group, saying most members did not want to turn the question into a conflict within the government coalition.

Greens can create problems

But, as Schröder knows, the Greens' pacifist element can generate coalition-shaking problems. In November 2001, the Social Democratic chancellor had to call for a vote of confidence in the parliament in order win support for his plan to deploy 3,900 German soldiers to the U.S. fight against terrorism. Even then, the Greens only reluctantly supported the issue.The eight Green opponents of the plan cut a deal among themselves in which four gave the proposal the votes necessary to preserve the coalition and four could vote against it. Afterward, Ströbele expressed his relief about the outcome. "I am in the schizophrenic situation of having voted no and still being satisfied with the outcome of the vote," he said.

Questions about Schröder's promise to the Americans grew this week as the Iraq crisis peaked. First, the United States, Britain and Spain gave up efforts on Sunday to win U.N. Security Council backing of a resolution authorizing a war against Iraq. Then, on Monday, President George W. Bush issued Saddam a deadline of 2 a.m. Central European Time on Thursday to leave the country or face an invasion. Shortly after the ultimatum ran out, he opened the war with a salvo of cruise missiles aimed at killing Saddam.

"If the German bases are used as a launching pad for air raids on Iraq or if the war is supported in Germany in any fashion, then that would be prohibited under the constitution," Ströbele said in separate interview this week.

Ströbele was alluding to Article 26 of the German Constitution, which makes it a crime to support a war of aggression.

Investigation of Schröder urged

German citizens have been asking themselves similar questions, and some of them have requested that the federal prosecutor general, Kay Nehm, consider filing charges against the chancellor. These citizens maintain that the United States is waging a war of aggression because it does not have a U.N. resolution authorizing the attack and that Schröder's decision to allow the United States to use German airspace could amount to criminal act. German law says: "Whoever prepares a war of aggression in which the Federal Republic of Germany is supposed to participate and thus endangers the Federal Republic of Germany can be sentenced to a life term or a term of not less than 10 years."

But on Friday, Nehm said he had decided to reject the requests.The granting of base and airspace rights does amount to preparation for a war of aggression, according to a statement issued by Nehm.

President George W. Bush maintains that the United States has the right to wage war in order to choke off a threat. "The danger is clear: Using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other," the president said in a speech on Monday night in which he laid down a 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam.

Members of the political opposition challenged Schröder on Thursday about his decision to deploy German crew members assigned to the NATO surveillance planes. And these opponents, members of the small Free Democratic Party, demanded that the parliament vote on the issue. Such votes are routinely required to be taken before German troops are sent abroad.

"This is cannot be considered a routine mission," the Free Democrats said.

The party is concerned because the airborne warning and control aircraft not only can watch over Turkish airspace to determine whether an attack is being planned but also can see deep into Iraqi airspace to help forces fighting Saddam.

The coalition of Social Democrats and Greens refused on Thursday to schedule the vote. In his speech to parliament on Wednesday, Schröder explained why he saw no need for such a decision, saying the planes were under the control of NATO's supreme allied commander Europe and not the United States. "Therefore, no vote by the parliament is necessary," he said.

Having been rebuffed in the parliament, the Free Democrats decided on Friday to ask the Federal Constitutional Court to consider the issue.

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