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German Leaders Clash Over Iraq

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's refusal to commit Bundeswehr troops or money for a possible U.S.-led attack against Iraq is opening a bitter rift between members of his own party and the opposition.


In the dog house with Washington?

"The Middle East needs new peace, not new wars," Schröder wrote in the Wednesday edition of the mass-circulation "Bild" newspaper, distancing himself yet further from a possible future U.S. attack against Iraq.

The chancellor wrote that an attack against Saddam Hussein would not be seen as a defensive measure by many, and that it could "destroy" the alliance of countries that have lined up behind the U.S. to stamp out international terrorist groups. He wrote that a new war could exacerbate difficulties the global economy is already encountering and would only complicate things for Germany's own struggling economy.

For several days now, Schröder's party -- the Social Democrats and its coalition partner, the Greens -- has been distancing itself from the United States on the Iraq issue. It's a step recent public opinion polls seem to support. According to a survey released this week by the polling firm EMNID, 72.7 percent of Germans are opposed to the country participating in an attack against Iraq.

"The German public is very negative about the prospect of a military strike against the Iraqi government," Udo Steinbach, director of the German Institute for Middle East Studies, told DW-WORLD. He added that it would be difficult to prove any connection between Iraq and al Qaeda and, though people have little sympathy for Saddam Hussein, they would rather see the problem get resolved by the United Nations than through unilateral action by the United States.

"Most people here think that using a military strike as a solution at the start of the 21st century is outdated. They want to solve the problem by political means," he said.

At the launch of the final leg of his campaign on Monday, Schröder said: "We are prepared to show our solidarity, but this nation will not be available for an adventure while under my leadership."

"An incalculable risk"

In an interview with the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (Greens) said the risks associated with a war against Iraq were "incalculable." Fischer told the paper a war against Iraq would require a complete reorganization of the Middle East that could require both military and political engagement in the region for decades to come.

"Whether the Americans are ready to do that is open to question," he warned. If the Americans were to pull out too soon Europe, as the Middle East's closest regional neighbor, would be left to deal with the "unfortunate consequences," he said.

On Tuesday, German Defense Minister Peter Struck reaffirmed the government's refusal to engage in U.S. efforts to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his regime. He said Germany's red-green coalition would say "no" to any American requests to participate in a military action, but also told the "Leipziger Volkszeitung" newspaper that the U.S. had made no such requests.

A rift within the party

Schröder's warnings are creating a rift within the government. Some see his refusal to join forces with the U.S. as too weak, while others perceive it as too resolute.

Saddam Hussein mit Thumbnail

Saddam Hussein

The head of the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Social Democrat Hans-Ulrich Klose, warned that "friendly pleas" no longer impress Saddam Hussein (photo) enough to make him budge. Instead, he said, credible threats that don't rule out "any option" are needed. Klose said Schröder's outright refusal was the wrong tack because the more pressure that is put on Hussein, the greater the chances for a political solution.

But Schröder's warnings on Iraq haven't gone far enough for some members of the government. Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of parliament for the Green Party, called on Schröder to give a clearer rejection of military engagement with Iraq and also demanded that the government withdraw the tank troops it has stationed in Kuwait as part of the international war against terrorism.

Troops overextended

Additionally, Schröder's challenger for the Chancellery, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union, told "Bild" that sending more German troops abroad is not part of the agenda. "(T)he German army, with 10,000 soldiers on foreign missions from Afghanistan to the Balkans, is already being pushed to its limits," he said. In making the statements, he seemed to be distancing himself from previous statements made by Wolfgang Schäuble, the foreign affairs expert in the Christian Democratic Union's parliamentary group.

"With the Chancellor's hasty rejection of international alliance responsibilities," Schäuble warned, "Germany now runs the risk of not being taken seriously any more in Washington and Europe."

A calculated campaign strategy?

Earlier this week, Stoiber accused Schröder and his red-green government of creating an "artificial conflict" over Iraq to attract voters. He said both the Union parties and the government had similar positions on the Iraq issue, and that it was "improper" for the chancellor to use the issue in an effort to build up domestic political support.

Steinbach of the German Institute for Middle East Studies concurred. "Schröder's statements are definitely part of his election campaign. If the polls weren't so negative, Schröder's attitude would be more constructive to discuss the issue with the U.S. and open a window of understanding," he said.

The statements are also damaging Germany's standing with Washington, Steinbach warned. "The reaction in Washington is extremely negative. Schröder is accusing the U.S. government of playing around with war, and that's a statement the Americans don't like. They know the Europeans are critical, but they didn't expect the kind of rhetoric he delivered. Even if he wins the election, it will now be hard for him to work with Washington," he said.

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