BERLIN -- The realization that Germany was far and away Iraq's largest supplier of military and high-technology know-how is slowly becoming a political issue here.
Among the public and in government, it has become increasingly difficult for Germans to ignore the fact that lax export controls allowed German firms to help Saddam Hussein's regime build everything from poison gas factories and rockets to helicopters and trucks.
"Dear Germans, many thanks for the great weaponry. See you soon, your Saddam," read one poster at a recent demonstration in Berlin.In this week's debate in parliament on the Persian Gulf crisis, many speakers pointed out that Germany bore a responsibility for Iraq's threat because of its assistance to President Hussein.
According to information compiled by various sources, including U.S. Senate report on foreign assistance for Iraq, 87 of the 218 companies involved were German. In second place in the listing was Austria
with 18, followed by France with 17 and the United States with 16.
The companies involved read like a Who's Who of German industry, including Daimler-Benz, armored personnel carriers; Messerschmidt-Boelkow-Bloem, military helicopters, anti-tank weapons, missiles, laboratory equipment and chemical weapons; AEG, a weapon and ammunition production facility; and MAN, transport equipment.
While few expect companies to do anything other than sell to any customer, regardless of reputation, many Germans have asked why their government can't stop the often embarrassing flood of exports to the world's tyrants.
One of Germany's most prominent philosophers and physicists, Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker, recently called on the government to ban weapons exports of any kind because of the risk that even limited permission to sell could result in misuse.
In addition, the Federation of German Unions has said that Germany should "draw the consequences" of its military past and forbid military exports.
"No one can feel proud in building equipment that ends up in the hands of someone like Saddam Hussein. Our members should know that their work will be contributing to peace and not war," federation Chairman Heinz-Werner Meyer said.
But such demands and the seemingly regular export scandals have not resulted in much stricter legislation, according to experts.
West Germany has legislation dating to 1982 that forbids weapons exports to any crisis area, but this allowed for exceptions that were in the country's "vital interests." This left the export licenses to the discretion of Economics Ministry officials, who often shuttled back and forth into industry.
During the 1980s, Washington quietly warned Bonn that West German companies were helping, among others, India and Argentina with nuclear technology and South Africa with submarine plans.
After it became public in 1989 that West German companies were helping Libya build a poison gas factory, the government promised to tighten its export rules. But only last fall, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher criticized fellow party member Helmut Haussmann, who heads the Economics Ministry, for not implementing strict export controls.
Later last year, the government had another try -- a month after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August -- by forbidding almost all sales to Iraq.
In addition, the government decided that any product designed for war must have an export license.
Until the Persian Gulf conflict, few people seemed interested in the matter.
Except for two German magazines and an investigative television news program, most of the revelations about the companies' seamy business were unearthed by U.S. intelligence agencies and were treated as a U.S.-German public relations problem rather than as a question of laxity in German export laws.
But with the gulf crisis having focused everyone's minds on the long-term dangers and costs of exporting weapons to undemocratic regimes, Germany's international business relations have been put back on the political agenda.