BERLIN -- The German government began arguing with itself yesterday over whether it can sue itself.
The Constitutional Court heard arguments over whether one party in the government can sue the others over the use of German military personnel on surveillance planes policing the no-fly zone in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Since 1949, German governments have consistently held that Article 24 of the constitution permits the armed forces to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in combat in NATO areas but forbids deployment of combat troops elsewhere.
The court has been asked to rule on the constitutional dilemma that has plagued the German government since the Persian Gulf war and now threatens a crisis in NATO.
But after wrestling with the problem for eight hours yesterday, the court put off deciding until tomorrow on whether it will even accept the suit.
In an extraordinary confrontation, opponents within Chancellor Helmut Kohl's governing coalition are asking the court to decide a question they cannot resolve themselves: Does the constitution allow German soldiers to serve on combat missions outside the NATO defense area?
Such a decision would determine if Germany can participate in enforcing the air-exclusion zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the court seems as reluctant to decide as the government. And even if the court takes the case, no decision is likely until after the Easter holidays, close to the time enforcement flights are expected to begin.
The court ordered Rudolf Seiters, the interior minister, Volker Ruehe, the defense minister, and Klaus Kinkel, the foreign minister, to present arguments tomorrow.
Mr. Seiters and Mr. Ruehe are both members of the chancellor's Christian Democratic Union, the major party in the coalition government. Mr. Kinkel is a leader of the Free Democratic Party, a minority party in the coalition.
Chancellor Kohl's party contends the court should not even hear suits filed by Free Democrats and by the opposition Social Democratic Party. The Free Democrats and the Social Democrats argue that out-of-area use of German troops on combat missions is unconstitutional.
Germans make up one-third of the crews of the AWACS command-surveillance aircraft that would direct combat operations against violation of the no-fly zone. The alliance would have to scramble to find replacements for them if they can't participate.
Germans now fly in the unarmed radar aircraft -- called AWACS for airborne warning and control system -- that are monitoring air traffic over the former Yugoslavian territory. But the United Nations voted last week to enforce the 5-month-old no-fly rules, and Germany was thrown into a constitutional dilemma.
In a choreographed meeting of the center-right coalition that governs Germany, the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union voted Friday to allow Germans to stay in the AWACS planes during enforcement of the U.N. decree.
The Free Democrats voted no, on its constitutional grounds. The party then brought its case to the high court, in effect suing the government of which it is a part.
The Christian Democrats are eager to assume what they perceive as Germany's international responsibilities and send troops in combat roles on peacemaking missions.
The Free Democrats originally maintained only a constitutional amendment could allow use of combat troops out of the NATO defense area.
But the Social Democratic Party opposes use of Germany's soldiers in any outside deployments other than peacekeeping missions. The Social Democrat opposition is strong enough to prevent passage of a constitutional amendment.