Germany moves further from U.S. stance on Iraq

Specialized warfare unit would leave Kuwait if U.S. attacks, official vows

August 31, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BERLIN - If the United States attacks Iraq, Germany will withdraw from Kuwait its specialized unit that is designed to respond to nuclear, chemical and biological warfare, the German defense minister said in an interview published yesterday.

The conservative challenger in the election for German chancellor, Edmund Stoiber, said yesterday that he would do the same in the case of a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq, but after consulting with European allies.

The German position marks another shift away from Washington in the heat of a campaign that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is trying to turn toward questions of foreign policy rather than the high unemployment rate.

The specialized warfare unit, consisting of six Fuchs tanks and 52 soldiers, is designed to detect the use or presence of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and destroy them. The unit was sent to Kuwait as part of Germany's contribution to the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that followed the attacks on the United States of Sept. 11.

The German parliament approved sending the unit after a bitter debate, and the defense minister, Peter Struck, a former parliamentary leader for Schroeder's Social Democrats, said a new U.S. war against Iraq would fall outside that parliamentary mandate and would mean that the unit should be withdrawn.

"If the danger exists that our soldiers could be involved in a conflict situation in Iraq, that would not be covered by the mandate given them by the German lower house, the Bundestag, last November," Struck told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, "they would then be withdrawn."

Schroeder, in a close and bitter election fight with Stoiber, has said Germany would not take part in any war against Iraq or contribute financially to one, even if there were a United Nations Security Council mandate for the war.

That position has annoyed the Bush administration but is popular with the German public, and it has put Stoiber on the defensive. The more bellicose the reaction from Washington, officials of Stoiber's party say, the more Schroeder looks like a peacemaker, harming the conservatives.

Schroeder, who pronounced Germany's "unconditional solidarity" with the United States after Sept. 11, has said a military strike on Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein would be a different matter.

Six months ago, however, Schroeder reportedly told party officials and parliamentary leaders at a meeting that a decision to withdraw the Fuchs unit from Kuwait would have consequences for German-U.S. relations that would last years.

According to records of that closed meeting, which were seen by the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Schroeder said no one could be responsible for the consequences "for the German-American relationship over the next 30 to 50 years" if the Fuchs units were withdrawn, and nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons were then used against Kuwait or allied forces.

For that reason, the account of his remarks said, the units would remain in Kuwait and could be used there even in the case of "unilateral action" by the United States.

But in the tough election campaign, Schroeder and his party have moved sharply to the left to try to inspire supporters disappointed with the economy to vote.

Schroeder has been the most outspoken Western European leader to warn Washington against an attack on Iraq, calling it "an adventure," as Struck did again in the interview.

Schroeder's position is harder than the British and French stands, which have said that any attack on Iraq must have the mandate of the United Nations and be preceded by efforts, including a possible deadline, to get Iraq to allow unconditional inspections of its territory by U.N. weapons inspectors.

Struck also said, "According to our present knowledge, there is no concrete threat for us here in Europe emanating from [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein," a widespread German view that contradicts that of the Bush administration.

Stoiber said yesterday that he, too, would withdraw the Fuchs unit if Iraq were attacked unilaterally.

"Eventually, yes," he said, but he added, "We should coordinate our action, which depends on decisions by the United Nations, above all with the Europeans."

German participation in any attack would be possible only under a U.N. mandate and in consultation with European allies, Stoiber said, emphasizing that Germany would not act alone.

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