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Germany Apologizes for Comment

Europe: Chancellor ex- presses his regret amid an official's insistence that her Hitler reference in remarks about Bush was misrepresented.


BERLIN — Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder apologized to President Bush on Friday for any offense caused by a remark attributed to a German Cabinet member comparing White House policy on Iraq to diversionary tactics employed by Adolf Hitler.

Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin insisted that her comments at a small preelection meeting were misrepresented, and Schroeder said in his apology that he accepted her version of events.

But the message delivered to Washington two days before Sunday's cliffhanger national election here showed how sensitive the relationship between the allies has become because of differences over Iraq.

Schroeder, head of the leftist Social Democratic Party, and conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union are virtually neck and neck.

Schroeder's criticism of U.S. plans for an invasion of Iraq have helped give him the an eleventh-hour surge after months as the underdog. German voters are strongly opposed to any military strike against Baghdad, especially one without endorsement by the U.N. Security Council.

The Schwaebisches Tagblatt newspaper quoted Daeubler-Gmelin as saying Bush was posturing on Iraq to sway American voters.

"Bush wants to distract attention from his domestic political problems," she was quoted as telling about 20 trade union officials in her home district in Baden-Wuerttemberg state. "That's a favorite method. Hitler did that too."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer termed the remark "outrageous and inexplicable." Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Friday called German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to ask for an explanation.

Daeubler-Gmelin rushed to Berlin late Friday at Schroeder's insistence to explain herself to reporters.

"It is absurd and slanderous to ascribe to me a comparison between a democratically elected politician and Nazi leaders," the Cabinet member and leading Social Democrat said. "I deeply regret that this has thrown shadows on German-American relations."

Daeubler-Gmelin added that she has "great respect" for Bush and friends in the U.S. leadership.

But Schroeder apparently feared her comments were insufficiently contrite, and he sent his own apology directly to Bush.

"I want to let you know how much I regret the fact that alleged comments by the German justice minister have given an impression that has offended you," Schroeder wrote. "Let me assure you that there is no place at my Cabinet table for anyone who makes a connection between the American president and such a criminal."

Schroeder's government, particularly Daeubler-Gmelin, has been at odds with Washington over issues including the death penalty and U.S. rejection of a new international criminal court's jurisdiction over U.S. citizens. The justice minister has threatened to withhold evidence from U.S. courts in cases where the death penalty is being sought, such as that of Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even 57 years after World War II ended in an Allied victory over the Nazis, any political allusion to the Third Reich still sparks controversy in Germany.

Stoiber, the challenger, has accused Schroeder of endangering U.S.-German relations for election purposes. But Stoiber jumped on the bandwagon in recent days, suggesting in a TV interview Thursday that he would deny U.S. military access to German bases if Washington engages in unilateral actions against Iraq.

Schroeder and his party closed a gap of as much as 8 percentage points to post a slight lead over the opposition in polls released in the last few days.

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