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Germany Works to Mend Fences With U.S.

May 04, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — As long-rumored talk of moving U.S. troops out of Germany solidifies into concrete plans, German officials are denying the movement stems from their refusal to back the U.S.-led war in Iraq. But without showing remorse for their antiwar stance, they also appear to be eager to mend fences and are dispatching a flurry of diplomats to the U.S.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck travels to Washington today for a NATO meeting and hopes to chat with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is also sending his national security advisor, Bernd Muetzelburg, to Washington this week to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Condoleezza Rice. Bush's national security advisor deemed U.S.-German ties poisoned during Schroeder's successful September campaign for reelection on an antiwar platform.

In mid-May, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to visit Germany, and although Schroeder is scheduled to be on an Asian tour at the time, German and U.S. officials say the chancellor is eager to accommodate President Bush's chief envoy whenever he arrives.

The Pentagon's stated reasons for shifting some training bases from Germany to new or aspiring NATO members in Eastern Europe has been the need for smaller, more mobile units in locales closer to Middle Eastern zones of potential conflict. But the planned downsizing here is also seen by critics of German policy, outside this country and within, as motivated in part by Washington's desire to economically reprimand old allies who failed to back the war in Iraq.

While spokesmen for Schroeder and Struck contend there are neither definite nor punitive plans for moving U.S. troops out of this country, others concede the withdrawals are a looming reality that will hurt Germans in their pocketbooks as well as their pride.

"Through the grave mistakes of the federal government in its relations with the United States in recent months, those forces in Washington wanting to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Germany in favor of states in Central and Eastern Europe have been strengthened," said Friedbert Pflueger, a veteran security expert in parliament with the conservative Christian Democratic Union. Urging Schroeder to abandon his "foolish and divisive policies," Pflueger warned that the dispute with U.S. leaders threatened "considerable political and economic consequences" for Germany, home to 80% of the 112,000 U.S. troops in Europe.

A U.S. Army statement issued from Wiesbaden on Thursday said 3,700 U.S. troops will withdraw from five bases in Hesse, the state that surrounds Frankfurt, in 2007 and 2008. Five thousand dependents will be leaving more rural outposts. The closings will mean the direct loss of 230 German jobs at the bases and are likely to inflict deeper economic harm on small communities that depend on U.S. patronage of their shops, restaurants and services.

Hesse is also the current home of the Army's 1st Armored Division, which is deploying its 16,500 troops to Iraq over the next two weeks for peacekeeping duties and is not expected to return to its Wiesbaden locale after that mission.

The Army statement, informing the Hesse government of its plans, attributed the decisions to a strategic restructuring of U.S. forces in Europe. But amid the strains inflicted on U.S.-German relations by Berlin's vocal opposition to the Iraq war, the announcement at the state rather than the federal level has produced fresh fodder for political squabbling between the governing left and the more pro-American right.

"I cannot give a statement for the government when it hasn't been informed on an official basis," Schroeder's spokesman, Bela Anda, replied when asked about the U.S. reduction plans.

A Defense Ministry official who spoke on condition he not be named said Struck probably would be informed of the impending changes during his meetings in Washington. Struck will be in Rumsfeld's company at a NATO defense ministers session and hopes to have bilateral talks with his U.S. counterpart before returning to Berlin on Tuesday, the official said.

Independent analysts tend to agree with the logic of the move to less expensive and more strategically located venues. But they also share the conservatives' view that the reductions are at least partly motivated by a Washington wish to reward new allies such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria with economy-boosting bases while showing its pique with what Rumsfeld calls "old Europe."

"It mostly has to do with geography. NATO's borders are moving east and south. So is its strategic concept. There is more to be on guard for in the Mediterranean or the Black Sea than in Central Europe," said Frank Umbach, a security analyst at the German Society for Foreign Policy, a Berlin-based think tank.

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