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Military controversy

August 20, 2011

Berlin's official position is that no German troops are being deployed in Libya. But Bundeswehr soldiers are indirectly taking part in the conflict by providing target assessment for their NATO allies.

Rebel fighters fire a grad rocket on the frontline near Misrata, Libya
German soldiers have been supporting NATO operationsImage: dapd

"We will not deploy German soldiers in any war in Libya," German Foreign Minsiter Guido Westerwelle declared in March 2011. Indeed, Germany abstained in the UN Security Council vote on military action in Libya.

Guido Westwelle
Westerwelle was criticized for the German abstention at the UN Security CouncilImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But the reality is less clear-cut. It has now emerged that German soldiers are taking part in selecting targets for the NATO bombing campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

The German Defense Ministry said that a total of 11 German soldiers were working in operation headquarters in Italy, although not in influential positions.

Green politician Hans-Christian Ströbele thinks, nonetheless, that the disclosure is a scandal. He said the deployment of German troops was "constitutionally very questionable." According to Ströbele, the move requires the approval of parliament. He claimed it amounted to Germany "secretly" taking part in the Libyan war. Ströbele is now threatening a complaint of unconstitutionality.

"A matter of course"

Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere has defended the deployment. He called Ströbele's judgment "legally wrong." He said working with NATO staff and preparing the infrastructure for the military operation was "a matter of course" and did not require a special parliamentary mandate. "It is guaranteed under the jurisdiction of the German constitution," de Maiziere said. He added that Germany's membership of NATO included duties that couldn't simply be shaken off.

The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has no concern that the German involvement in NATO's behind-the-scenes work is unconstitutional. SPD Defense Spokesman Rainer Arnold said that German soldiers always take part in such operations in some form or another, with or without a mandate from parliament.

"The Constitutional Court would not be able to force us to block NATO in any way," Arnold said.

Just a few weeks ago, it emerged that Germany had been delivering bomb parts for use in the war against Gadhafi.

Political déjà-vu

Election posters encouraging voters to choose Schröder in 2002
Schröder campaigned on the Iraq issue in 2002Image: AP

The latest discussions about the German involvement in Libya are similar to a debate that took place during the war in Iraq. The American plans for a military invasion were extremely controversial in Germany. Most of the German public was against the war - along with the then coalition government led by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

In his election campaign in 2002, Schröder claimed that under his leadership "Germany would not take part in any military action in Iraq."

However, after his reelection, Schröder revised his position somewhat and later only said that there would be no "active" participation under his leadership. And German troops were never in fact deployed on Iraqi soil. But despite Schröder's categorical rejection of the Iraq war, a number of soldiers were involved in a supporting capacity.

During the Iraq war, a 200-strong German army battalion was stationed in the American operation headquarters at Camp Doha in Kuwait. Furthermore, German soldiers oversaw US bases in Germany, which were used as a launch-pad for aircraft. The Americans were granted permission to fly warplanes over German airspace.

German soldiers flew across the Turkey-Iraq border for NATO reconnaissance purposes. Those missions all took place without the explicit approval of parliament. In 2008, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the then government had acted unconstitutionally.

A NATO reconnaissance flight
German soldiers took part in reconnaissance missions in IraqImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Secret services

After the war in Iraq was over, it also emerged that employees of the German Intelligence Service (BND) may have supported the USA in their mission. Two agents were active in Baghdad during the war. They apparently passed intelligence to the American secret services concerning the whereabouts of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The US army then bombed the building and several civilians were killed. Saddam Hussein was not present.

The German government later confirmed the presence of the BND agents. But it said they were only giving non-military information to their American counterparts.

It is not the first time that Germany is taking part in a military operation abroad despite an official denial. But there is a crucial difference: In Libya, the mission is led by NATO and approved by the UN Security Council. The war in Iraq was carried out by the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" under the leadership of the USA.

Author: Nils Naumann (dapd, dpa) / ji
Editor: Toma Tasovac