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Germany: U.S. Troops Using Bases, Despite Berlin's Firm Antiwar Pledge

Germany has said it will not support or participate in any military attack against Iraq, a stance that has strained relations between Washington and Berlin. However, it is indirectly involved because thousands of the U.S. combat troops now in the Persian Gulf came from bases in Germany. U.S. military aircraft are still using bases in Germany and will continue to do so, even if the U.S. goes to war without a UN mandate.

Munich, 11 March 2003 (RFE/RL) --- Eleven years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. still has about 70,000 troops stationed in Germany. In the past three months, thousands of them have been transferred to the Persian Gulf in preparation for a possible war against Iraq.

The troops will return to Germany when the war is over to rejoin their wives and children. There are more than 70,000 family members of U.S. troops in Germany. Officials say their presence means that Germany is indirectly connected to the military buildup in the Gulf, even though Berlin has refused the U.S. either physical or financial support for a war against Iraq.

A German woman who leads a German-American women's group, Heidelinde Schmidt, says that although more than 70 percent of Germans oppose a war against Iraq, they sympathize with the wives and children of the American troops: "The American soldiers are part of ordinary life all over Germany. They go to the Gastaette (restaurants/pubs). They join our festivals. They are members of our hunting clubs. So, of course, we know how their wives and children are frightened when they go off to war."

The commander of U.S. forces in Europe, General James Jones, told reporters at his headquarters in Stuttgart that his soldiers know they have the sympathy and support of the Germans in the towns and villages where they live -- regardless of the political differences between governments.

Stuttgart businessman Ulrich Kleinart agrees: "It is the second time in 12 years that we have seen these young Americans go off to fight Iraq in a Gulf war," he said. "The people in the military towns rally around and help the families left behind, just as they did in 1991."

The U.S. has 96 military facilities in Germany, including infantry bases, military airfields, and vast areas of countryside used for maneuvers. The bases include housing areas, hospitals, schools, shops, and sports facilities. Most of them are near small towns or villages.

Among the U.S. troops already in the Gulf are members of the First Infantry Division, known to Americans as the Big Red One, which is based near the Bavarian city of Wurzburg. Another is the artillery of the V Corps, based in Schwetzingen, near Heidelberg.

Others have gone from Grafenwoehr in Bavaria, where the U.S. has its largest training area in Europe -- more than 21,000 hectares of fields and forests. Combined maneuvers involving infantry, tanks, artillery, and aircraft were held there for troops on their way to the Gulf.

Normally, more than 6,500 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Grafenwoehr along with more than 7,000 family members. A reporter who went there this week, however, found the giant training area almost deserted.

Mayor Helmut Waechter says Grafenwoehr is an example of the close cooperation between ordinary Germans and U.S. troops. He says the Americans change millions of dollars into euros at the banks in Grafenwoehr. A lot of it is spent in local shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels. In addition, the U.S. employs about 3,600 local Germans.

Waechter says that soldiers and their families help plan a German-American festival that attracts around 50,000 visitors.

"Of course, we are close to the Americans here," he says. "They are part of our daily life. Political squabbles between Berlin and Washington have nothing to do with our personal relations."

Despite the political differences over the Iraq war, Berlin agreed to the United States using its huge military air bases at Ramstein, near Kaiserslautern, and at Rhine-Main near Frankfurt as transit stops for planes carrying troops and equipment to the Gulf. The German government spokesman, Bela Anda, said in Berlin yesterday that the U.S. could continue to do so even if it went to war without a mandate from the United Nations.

The European Command headquarters in Stuttgart says that in the past few months, thousands of transport planes have passed through Ramstein, which is the biggest American military air base outside the United States. The landing strip at Ramstein is 3.5-kilometers long, enough for the largest transport aircraft. These days, the night sky reverberates with the roar of C-5 Galaxy cargo planes and other aircraft ferrying troops and supplies to the Gulf.

It is the same at the Rhein-Main airbase at Frankfurt. Local residents near both bases complain frequently about the noise, but otherwise, says the Rhein-Main commander, Colonel Christine Prewitt, there are few problems between the troops and the townspeople.

She contrasts it with her experience in the Philippines in 1988 when anti-American demonstrations led to the closure of an air base.

The main U.S. fighter base in Germany -- at Spangdahlem, on the Luxembourg border near Bitburg --- has also sent pilots and crews to the Gulf. Town officials say that here, too, relations between the air crews and the local people are friendly.

Many of the Americans wounded in any war will be flown to the U.S. military hospital at Landwehr before being sent to the United States. Doctors at Landwehr say medicines and drugs have been shipped to the hospital in recent weeks.

Despite the good relations between German civilians and U.S. forces, precautions have been taken against possible anti-American violence. Yesterday, the German government said it would guard U.S. civilians in military housing estates against possible demonstrations if the U.S. goes to war.

Last month, hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles in Germany were shipped to the Gulf through the Dutch port of Rotterdam rather than through German ports to avoid possible demonstrations. German-based troops were also shipped to the Gulf from Dutch ports rather than German ones. A news blackout was imposed on train routes and shipping schedules to prevent demonstrations but, in fact, there were few protests.

Officials at U.S. military headquarters in Stuttgart say the days of a huge American military presence in Germany may soon come to an end. General Jones confirmed to reporters a few days ago that the U.S. is studying proposals to scale down its massive military presence in Germany and Western Europe established during the Cold War. Instead, the U.S. is considering a more mobile army stationed in a network of international bases across the world. They would be able to move into action rapidly when a crisis erupts.

Defense Department officials in Washington have suggested that some of these bases could be in Eastern Europe, including Romania and Bulgaria, as well as others in Central Asia.

Jones emphasized in his meeting with journalists that these ideas have been brewing for years and have not been prompted by present tensions between the U.S. and Germany. He said it was possible that some German facilities, such as the Ramstein air base, would continue to operate.

Jones stressed that the review will not be completed until March 2004. Until then, at least, Germany will continue to be a home for thousands of American soldiers.