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Germany

Intelligence Affair Forces Steinmeier to Shorten Middle East Trip

On Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier embarks on his first trip to the Middle East. Will his visit be overshadowed by reports that German secret agents aided the US in the war on Iraq?

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Steinmeier will have to wait to make a thorough tour of the Middle East

Steinmeier's first visit to the region wasn't meant to be much more than a get-to-know-you session with the key players in the region. Now, it won't even be that. The foreign minister was forced to cut the planned four-day trip in half, meaning that instead of stopping in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, he will only visit Egypt on Wednesday and Thursday.

The reason for the change in plans is also the reason why the trip has been attracting the scrutiny of the German press -- a potential intelligence scandal involving German secret agents in Iraq.

Bundesnachrichtendienst in Pullach BND

The German government is investigating reports that BND agents aided the US in Iraq

Reports began surfacing last week that German BND foreign intelligence agents may have helped American forces select bombing targets during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Both Steinmeier and former Defense Minister Peter Struck have denied the reports, which would go against Germany's claims that it took no active part in the war.

A parliamentary debate on the BND's role during the Iraq war will be held on Friday, and a spokeswoman from the German foreign ministry said that Steinmeier intends to take part. Steinmeier will return from Egypt to attend the debate.

There was speculation that the intelligence affair would have overshadowed Steinmeier's trip, although Udo Steinbach, head of the Hamburg-based German Orient Institute told DW-WORLD that the issue hasn't been ruffling feathers in the Arab world.

"As long as the facts aren't clear, I don't think that the Arab world would have any great interest in the affair," said Steinbach. "The perception of Germany in the Arab world, in Iraq, is not going to change."

Israeli submarines a bigger hurdle

Steinbach said that the bigger hurdle for Steinmeier was the fact that the previous government, in one of its last acts, had promised to sell two submarines to Israel at a discounted price.

"This has attracted much more attention," Steinbach said. "This is one point that could probably be brought up with the foreign minister in Egypt. Missiles with a far range, possibly even nuclear warheads, can be mounted on these submarines, and this could create difficulties for Germany when it comes to its role as the honest broker."

Steinbach said that while it's not possible for the current government to step back from the promise, Steinmeier can explain Germany's interests in the deal.

"If he is asked about it, he could do damage control," Steinbach said.

Steinmeier's first appointment in Cairo is with his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Abul Gheit. A meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is planned for the following day.

While in Egypt, Steinmeier will also attend the opening of the Cairo International Book Fair, at which Germany is a guest of honor. The event should "reassure the Arab world of the significance Germany attaches to cultural exchanges with the Arab world," said Steinmeier's spokesman, Martin Jäger.

Merkel to visit Israel

Steinmeier now has to wait to make his first visit to Israel -- a country that his predecessor Joschka Fischer visited 15 times during his tenure as foreign minister.

Angela Merkel in Washington USA George Bush

Merkel spoke out in support of Israel during her recent visit to Washington

But Israel won't have to wait long to make its first formal acquaintance with the new German government. Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to visit Israel in late January to reaffirm Germany's solidarity with the Jewish state, especially in light of anti-Israeli remarks made by Iran's president in recent months, calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and referring to the Holocaust as a myth.

Merkel has already made her support of Israel clear. During her joint press conference with US President George W. Bush on her recent trip to Washington, she said that Germany would not be intimidated by Iran, and that Iran's statements on Israel and the Holocaust were "totally unacceptable."

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