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Germany: Schroeder Sticks To Iraq Position While Seeking Better Ties With U.S.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has made clear he stands by his decision not to cooperate in a military attack on Iraq, even as he seeks to mend damaged relations with the United States. Defense Minister Peter Struck formally informed NATO allies of Germany's position at a meeting in Warsaw this week. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is expected to go to Washington soon to try to smooth over relations.

Munich, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has made clear that, although he wants to repair relations with the United States, he will not retreat from his refusal to support a military attack on Iraq.

Schroeder's strong statements on Iraq are widely believed to have played a role in his winning re-election on 22 September in a close race. Many commentators have since asked him whether he will step back, now that he has been returned to power for another four years. Schroeder says he will not.

At several press conferences this week, he has reiterated that his statements were not just an election ploy. "We have nothing to change from what we said before the election, and we will not change anything," Schroeder said.

Schroeder's views on Iraq, as well as inflammatory comments about U.S. President George W. Bush attributed to German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, who resigned over the incident, have disrupted the normally excellent relations between Berlin and Washington. The White House has indicated its displeasure with Berlin, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even declaring that the friendship between the two countries has been "poisoned."

A meeting of NATO defense ministers in Warsaw earlier this week passed without the customary bilateral talks between Rumsfeld and his German counterpart, Peter Struck. Rumsfeld told reporters that he could not be accused of boycotting talks with Struck because no meeting had been planned.

For his part, Struck told German correspondents that he had informed his fellow defense ministers about Germany's views, but he did not discuss their reactions. "I have made clear [to the NATO meeting] that the German government, for well-known reasons, will reject military measures against Iraq. This position was noted [by those at the meeting]," Struck said.

Schroeder said earlier this week that Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer will go to Washington in the near future to try to repair the damage. Diplomats in Berlin say Washington has not yet proposed a date for the visit. Fischer is expected to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell, but the German government hopes he will also be able to have a private conversation with Bush. Fischer has already talked to Powell on the telephone about the matter.

Since Schroeder's re-election, Fischer has met several times with foreign correspondents in Berlin to emphasize Germany's desire for a good relationship with the United States. Fischer has a reputation as an ardent supporter of the U.S. because it protected West Germany against Soviet communism. He often refers to the U.S. as "the good guys who protected us in the Cold War."

However, Fischer also strongly defends his personal right and the right of his country to express a different view on Iraq. In March, he was the first prominent politician to say that Germany would not support an attack against Iraq. Schroeder did not do so publicly until August.

This week, Fischer told journalists, "There are serious questions about a war with Iraq [that] have not been answered by Washington." He said they included the specific aims of a possible war and planning for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq under a new government.

He said that while Germany would not support a war, it might be ready to participate in postwar missions in Iraq led by the United Nations. Germany is already active in UN-sponsored activities in Afghanistan and has offered to take over command of the International Security Assistance Force there.

Schroeder said again yesterday that it should be possible to have a friendship with the United States that allows for different views on specific issues. He emphasized the firmness of his own position by saying that he expects these differences to remain. "It must be possible, as part of a friendship, to have factually different views. These differing views, I think, will remain. We will resolve them fairly and openly between [ourselves] without damaging the basis of the German-American relationship in any form," Schroeder said.

Since the election, the Schroeder government has taken several steps to emphasize its desire to end the quarrel with the U.S. It has distanced itself from former Justice Minister Daeubler-Gmelin, who was quoted as suggesting that Bush wants a war with Iraq to distract attention from economic problems in the United States. She reportedly said this tactic had frequently been used since the time of Adolf Hitler. However, she has denied drawing a comparison between Bush and Hitler.

Under pressure from the government, Daeubler-Gmelin stepped down this week as justice minister and has said she will not seek a post in the new government.

Schroeder has also replaced Ludwig Stiegler, the parliamentary floor leader of his Social Democratic party (SPD). Stiegler recently compared Bush to Augustus, the Roman emperor who subdued the Germanic tribes.