The liberal Free Democrats have joined the Greens and the Left Party in voting in favor of an inquiry into German involvement in Iraq. An investigation will almost certainly now go ahead.
The German government could face a potentially embarrassing probe
The decision taken by Germany's opposition liberal Free Democrats (FDP) Monday to back the Green Party and the Left Party left-wing alliance in calling for a parliamentary inquiry into allegations that German spies helped the US-led invasion of Iraq has cleared the way for an official probe.
With the three main opposition parties all in agreement, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is almost certain to face an embarrassing enquiry which could undermine the country’s security services and hobble Merkel's attempts to improve relations with the United States.
The combined votes of the FDP, the Greens and the Left Party are enough to force an investigation in which current and former officials -- including current and former cabinet ministers -- would have to testify under oath.
An investigation of this magnitude will almost certainly cast the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) in a bad light and could also lead to its influence and standing with overseas counterparts being damaged.
Liberals want accountability not a witch hunt
But the FDP's interior minister Max Stadler told the German parliament on Monday that the decision came from a need for transparency and not from the desire for a witch hunt.
"We don’t want an investigating committee against the Federal Intelligence Service, but a debate about political responsibility," Stadler said.
However, others could not see a seperation between the inquiry and potential damage to the BND.
The BND are not being hunted as a scapegoat, the FDP claims
"It has implications for the functions of the BND. We do depend in some areas of the world on international cooperation with other secret services, and being dragged into the limelight of public debate is not really helpful," Eberhard Sandschneider, head of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters.
Hans-Christian Ströbele, spokesman for the Greens, once more voiced his support for an inquiry and called for the BND to be investigated.
"Even after the meeting of the supervisory committee on Monday, I have no reason to believe that we no longer want and need a parliamentary probe into the BND's activities. I simply do not agree with the assessment given by the Social and Christian Democrats."
An investigation into the involvement of BND agents in pinpointing targets in Baghdad for US military air strikes could be the least of the government's problems.
Inquiry could open can of security worms
An inquiry could push for an opening of files on many other aspects of German-US security cooperation, including the alleged abduction of a German national to Afghanistan by the CIA, as well as revelations that German security officials accepted a US invitation to question two inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
The fact that two BND agents were in Baghdad at the start of the US invasion in March 2003 was confirmed in the initial report by a parliamentary control committee but there was no evidence that the agents were helping the US war effort.
BND agents did pass on information but were military targets named?
However, the government has been forced to change its story that the agents only provided information on schools, hospitals and other civilian targets that must not be bombed after the publication of a report on Feb. 24 that stated that the agents also provided some descriptions of the police and military presence in Baghdad, including geographic coordinates.
While the investigation may put possible strains on Berlin's relationship with Washington, Chancellor Merkel herself is in no direct political danger from an inquiry as she was in opposition with her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party at the time.
SPD coalition ministers face uncomfortable time
Steinmeier will have to explain his involvement to any inquiry
The same cannot be said for current Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier who was former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's chief of staff during the Iraq war and therefore the man responsible for overseeing the security services.
Other politicians who are still in prominent positions after serving in the previous red-green coalition government may also feel the heat.
Public and political anger at perceived duplicity
The Social Democrats and Greens won a second term on the back of Schröder's vehement opposition to the Iraq war; a stance which has come into question after the allegations that BND agents were aiding the US at the start of the invasion came to light.
Politicians and members of the public alike have been incensed by the possibility that Schröder's government was condemning US bombing raids even as German agents were guiding them, a claim SPD ministers have catergorically denied.
Social Democrat minister Olaf Scholz said there was nothing to prove that BND agents had acted against the former government’s policy line of being categorically opposed to the war in Iraq.
"There’s no evidence whatsoever that any information about the Iraqi regime’s defence plans was collected by German intelligence agents, nor was anything ever passed on to the US military," he said.