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Security, Foreign Policy Grip Germans

Election: Concerns about an Iraqi war are boosting incumbent chancellor. But the opposition is gaining from fears of terrorism.

September 17, 2002|JEFFREY FLEISHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Germany's campaign season has veered from high unemployment to roiling floods to whether the chancellor dyes his hair, and now voters are navigating the perils of terrorism and the dangers of joining a U.S. invasion across the deserts of Iraq.

Internal security and foreign policy are increasingly the stuff of sound bites.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's reelection chances have soared in recent days largely because of his promise to keep German soldiers clear of a U.S.-led "adventure" in the Persian Gulf. But a candidate in Germany's main opposition party is finding favor with voters with charges that Schroeder's government suffers from intelligence lapses and bungling police work in pursuing radical militants.

Germans are worried that terrorist cells--like the one discovered in Hamburg last year that spawned the Sept. 11 hijackers--are operating undetected in their cities. The nightly news flickers with extremist plots: a Turkish man and his American fiancee arrested near Heidelberg for allegedly planning to bomb a U.S. Army base, a Syrian-German clothier questioned on suspicion of laundering money for the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and a bogus tip about an Egyptian with an explosive in a Hamburg mosque.

Like many things in modern Germany, issues of war and security are complicated by the country's Nazi past. Germans want tougher laws against Islamic militants but at the same time are careful not to single out ethnic or religious groups. They reluctantly support their army's role in Afghanistan but recoil at the prospect of marshaling it in a war to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Germans are deeply concerned about terrorist activities within Germany," said Oliver Thraenert, a security analyst in Berlin. "But the same guy who is very conservative against allowing foreigners into the country would also be against the German army participating in a war against Iraq. This is the difference between Germany and America."

Schroeder's rivals accuse him of unwisely straining relations with Washington and of using Iraq to skirt Germany's most pressing problem--4 million unemployed. But polls show that voters are rallying around his message as many Germans view America as an arrogant cowboy with an itchy finger on a big gun. The daily Berliner Zeitung wrote last week that the Bush administration's talk of war is a "megalomaniacal attempt" to do the unimaginable.

Nearly moribund three months ago, Schroeder's campaign was first resuscitated by his handling of the German floods in August. Another big boost came last week with his forceful opposition to an invasion of Iraq. The chancellor and his left-of-center Social Democratic Party have jumped between 12 and 15 percentage points in the polls and have pulled slightly ahead of challenger Edmund Stoiber and his conservative Christian Social Union and its Christian Democratic Union allies. Stoiber has been strong on economic issues but murky and noncommittal on his Iraq policy leading up to Sunday's election.

In a speech Friday, Stoiber, aware that his once-commanding lead had slipped away, blamed Schroeder for playing "politics with people's fears. This is not a decision about whether there will be German troops in Iraq. It is about whether one can divert attention from a miserable economy."

Many German political analysts are surprised that Schroeder is so strongly defying the U.S. over Iraq. Some say that his stance represents a blatant grab for votes and that he will reverse himself after the election. Others view it as a political gamble that marks Germany's independence in foreign policy, leaving the chancellor little room to maneuver in coming months if he is pressured by the West to join a military coalition against Hussein.

Germans believe Schroeder won't plunge them into war, but they are less convinced that their federal and state governments are protecting them against terrorists.

Over the last year, Germany has passed tougher immigration laws and made it easier to extradite foreigners and investigate suspected militants and their financiers. Police have followed up on hundreds of tips and launched dozens of raids, including on mosques and religious centers.

But there have been law enforcement mistakes. U.S. authorities, for example, alerted German police in July that a Turkish man, Osman Petmezci, and his American-born fiancee, Astrid Eyzaguirre, allegedly were planning a Sept. 11 anniversary bomb attack on the U.S. base in Heidelberg. Hamstrung by bureaucracy and poor coordination, German authorities didn't arrest the couple--who had materials for five pipe bombs and 287 pounds of chemicals--until Sept. 5.

The arrest came two days after Interior Minister Otto Schily had assured the public that authorities had tracked 500 terrorism leads and found no serious threats.

"There is not enough security in Germany," said Sabine Wiedemann, a secretary from Sankt Augustin near Bonn. "There is too much concern for personal freedom."

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