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Party rallies around embattled German foreign minister

The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) have sought to quash the debate about the future of Guido Westerwelle. The foreign minister is facing widespread criticism for his U-turn on the role of NATO in Libya.

Guido Westerwelle

Guido Westerwelle came under fire for his stance on NATO

The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) sought to deflect criticism of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Monday, after he embarrassed the government last week by suggesting that economic sanctions, rather than NATO air strikes had played a decisive role in the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya. In March, Germany abstained from the UN Security Council vote on military intervention in Libya. It wasn't until Sunday that Westerwelle acknowledged the "help provided by the international military mission" - too late for many of his critics.

Westerwelle, who was forced to relinquish his position as FDP leader in April, may also be forced out as foreign minister if his party fails to win any seats in regional elections in Berlin and in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania next month. Many in Germany would see the departure of Westerwelle, a close ally of Angela Merkel, as a symbolic blow to the chancellor as well. The FDP is in coalition with Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party (CSU).

From left to right: Christian Lindner, Philipp Rösler, Guido Westerwelle

Lindner (l.) is standing by his FDP colleague

FDP Secretary General Christian Lindner sought to allay the criticism on German public television. "The foreign minister has done the right thing by expressing his respect for our [NATO] partners." He added that Germany should now support the international community in rebuilding Libya.

FDP parliamentary leader Rainer Brüderle added that he did not doubt that Westerwelle would continue in his current role. He said the foreign minister's position "was clear": that NATO had played a "decisive role" in helping the rebels to victory.

Back to business

But on Monday, there was speculation in Berlin that the party was seeking to avoid further media discussion of the issue, after Lindner cancelled a planned press conference. Brüderle, meanwhile, told the news agency DPA that the party would be focusing on "bread and butter issues" like the economy, education and fair taxation, ahead of forthcoming local elections. Brüderle was speaking shortly before a party conference in Cologne this week. He stressed that the ruling coalition government was a "well-functioning team."

But Klaus-Peter Schöppner, head of polling group Emnid, told the Reuters news agency that if the elections end up badly for the FDP, "I can well imagine the pressure on Westerwelle will become too strong."

This weekend, former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer described Westerwelle's opposition to the air campaign in Libya as the biggest foreign policy mistake in Germany's postwar history.

Fischer's comments came after calls for Westerwelle's resignation last week from former Interior Minister Gerhart Baum and former Rhineland-Palatinate Economy Minister Hans-Artur Bauckhage, both fellow FDP members.

Author: Joanna Impey (dapd, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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