The German foreign minister appeared in Parliament on Friday and denied reports that his nation's spies helped U.S. forces identify bombing targets during the Iraq war, including offering a tip on the location of Saddam Hussein.
The comments by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier came amid a widening political storm here over what role the former government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder secretly played in assisting Washington on the Iraq invasion and other covert activities that have since come to light.
German intelligence services did not "support operative fighting actions," Steinmeier said in attempts to persuade opposition lawmakers not to push for a special parliamentary investigation. This week, the head of German intelligence, Ernst Uhrlau, told a closed legislative committee that German agents working out of Baghdad did not supply coordinates on military targets.
German officials have said the nation's operatives informed the U.S. on locations of hospitals and other civilian sites to prevent them from being attacked. Steinmeier said the agents had explicit instructions not to forward military-related intelligence after the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003.
Recent reports in the German media and The Times, based on interviews with U.S. military and intelligence officials, suggest the Germans were more active. U.S. officials say German spies confirmed information on April 7, 2003, that Hussein had been spotted near a neighborhood chicken restaurant in Baghdad. Minutes later, four satellite-guided bombs destroyed the building, leaving at least 12 people dead, but not Hussein.
Assistance to the Americans during the war would have violated German and international law, opposition leaders say. Leftist parties "want parliamentary investigation," said Petra Pau, a member of the Left Party. "We think that the accusations made must be cleared up in a transparent manner for the public."
Steinmeier said a protracted investigation could damage U.S.-German relations just as they are beginning to improve. "What I fear is that, for a year or even longer, we would help make anti-Americanism and rejection of NATO acceptable in this country again," he said. "We should not allow that."
Schroeder, who publicly criticized the Iraq war and other Washington policies, won reelection in 2002 largely because he promised not to send German troops to Iraq.
The spy disclosures have distracted the new coalition of conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and prompted leftist politicians to call for the resignation of Steinmeier, who, as Schroeder's chief of staff, oversaw intelligence issues.
Questions about the role of German intelligence have also been raised concerning CIA flights over Germany that allegedly transported suspected Islamic militants to secret U.S.-run prisons in Europe and Berlin's involvement in the abduction by U.S. intelligence operatives of a German citizen of Lebanese descent mistakenly suspected of having terrorist ties. The man, Khaled Masri, has filed a suit against the United States, alleging kidnapping and torture during his five-month imprisonment.
Steinmeier and other Social Democrats in Schroeder's Cabinet have denied wrongdoing by German military and intelligence services.
For the Merkel coalition, the debate has become an unwanted chapter from the previous government, diverting energy from economic and social reforms. But the controversy is not likely to soon disappear; most Germans were proud of their nation's opposition to the Iraq war and would feel betrayed if their government was quietly working with Washington.
Guido Westerwelle, leader of the Free Democrats, urged Parliament to investigate German intelligence dealings and the possibility of illegal collusion with Washington.
"Imagine the German secret service had kidnapped a citizen in America, mistreated him and took him to a foreign country for five months. And then a member of Parliament or a minister came and said, 'We don't want to talk about that in public. It could annoy the Europeans.' He would have been sent home in shame," Westerwelle said.
Steinmeier blamed opposition parties for playing politics and said intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Germany has remained strong despite differences between the countries' leaders and has prevented terrorist attacks. He cautioned the opposition that a lengthy investigation of intelligence matters could have unintended consequences. "You can put the train on the tracks," he said, "but I predict that the station where it arrives will be different from the one you think."