BERLIN -- In a move that could bring to a head Germany's attempts to define its new post-unification military role, the government said yesterday that it will send a destroyer to join allied warships monitoring United Nations sanctions against the rump Yugoslav state.
The decision involves only light forces -- the destroyer Bayern and three reconnaissance airplanes -- but it is the first German military deployment to a region occupied by Germany in World War II and could be unconstitutional.
The opposition Social Democrats said they probably will challenge the decision in the Federal Constitutional Court, which could order the ship and planes back.
Government officials, however, said they are confident that their decision does not violate Germany's constitution, which was written shortly after World War II and limits military activities to joint actions with allies.
They point out that six other European countries and the United States are participating in the embargo, which only involves monitoring ships entering and leaving Yugoslav ports. The task force does not have U.N. permission to stop ships or to turn them back.
"This is a modest contribution to an attempt to dry out this war of the materials that make it possible," German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe said.
Opposition leaders and some members of the ruling coalition, however, said the action oversteps Germany's constitution, which they interpret as allowing only humanitarian actions, such as recent German participation in the Cambodian peace plan or the Sarajevo airlift.
"The established interpretation of the constitution does not allow for this," Social Democratic leader Bjorn Engholm said.
Privately, some government officials said they welcome the legal challenge.
Many constitutional experts believe that the restraints are only intended to bar German expansionism and not to prevent Germany from carrying out U.N. duties, which could go further than the current decision and involve combat missions.
A legal decision would also be a speedy way of solving the government-opposition argument, which has dragged on for more than a year.
Both sides want to amend the constitution to more clearly define the military's role.
But while the government favors allowing joint military actions with its Western allies, the opposition will agree only to sending German troops overseas for U.N. peacekeeping missions. The issue is deadlocked; each side needs the other for the two-thirds vote required to amend the constitution.
The government's current strategy has been to bypass an amendment and slowly expand Germany's de facto overseas role with or without opposition support. The Social Democrats, for example, backed participation in the Sarajevo airlift and in helping the Cambodian peace plan. They unsuccessfully opposed sending jets to help defend Turkey from Iraq during last year's Persian Gulf war.