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Powell, Schroeder Try to Start Over

The meeting in Berlin aimed to improve a relationship strained by Germany's opposition to the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

May 17, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

BERLIN — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met Friday with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in an effort to repair a battered transatlantic relationship and reach an agreement on Washington's desire to end 12 years of international economic sanctions against Iraq.

On a windy day in a capitol clattering with construction, Schroeder -- whose opposition to the Iraq war drew the ire of the Bush administration -- indicated that he supports the quick dismantling of the United Nations sanctions. That gesture might begin to heal months of acrimony between the two allies.

"We believe the sanctions no longer make any sense and that they should be removed as soon as possible," the chancellor told reporters after meeting with Powell for half an hour. Germany, however, still appears to have reservations about a U.N. Security Council resolution introduced by the U.S. that would permit Iraq to sell its oil but give Washington control over the country's rebuilding efforts.

"I was pleased with the chancellor's commitment to lift the sanctions entirely," said Powell, who was ending a tour of the Middle East and Europe. "It should be possible to come to closure quickly over the next several days or week on a U.N. resolution that will lift sanctions ... for us to begin helping the Iraqi people in a more direct way."

For both men, Friday's meeting was a chance to put a rough week behind them. Powell stopped in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday -- hours after suicide bombings killed 34 people, in a vivid reminder that Al Qaeda has not been defeated. Schroeder is battling a new German recession and anger over his government's inability to preserve the welfare state while reviving the economy.

But it was the estranged relationship between the two countries on which the German media fixated.

Handshakes were analyzed and demeanors were scrutinized in a day that was part choreographed diplomacy and part soap opera. The political chatter intensified with reports of a brief meeting in Washington a day earlier between President Bush and Roland Koch, a member of Germany's opposition Christian Democratic Party. Was this a snub? German reporters asked. Another disturbing sign that Washington and Berlin remain deeply divided?

"The press conferences have been short, the tone polite and sober. The ice has not been broken yet," said commentator Christine Kolmar in summing up Powell's visit.

"There is so much that keeps Germany and the United States together as partners and allies, and it was unfortunate that we had this recent, very major and serious disagreement over the Iraq issue," Powell told German TV. "It was a major problem -- we should not ignore that -- but we'll find ways to move on."

Schroeder, who cut short a trip to Asia to meet with Powell, said: "Our talks were very open, and I was pleased about that."

U.S.-German relations deteriorated last year during Schroeder's reelection campaign and the U.N. debate on Iraq. Germany sided with Russia and France in opposition to the war. But after the U.S. invasion began in March, the Schroeder government distanced itself from the harsher anti-American sentiment espoused by France. Many analysts have said that Germany -- although unapologetic about its stance on the war -- is attempting to nudge it way back into Washington's favor.

"One only needs to take care that no more rocks will be placed on this path," said Karsten Voigt, an analyst of U.S.-German relations for the Schroeder government. Bush and Schroeder, who have had only one conversation in months, are expected to meet next month at a G-8 summit of major industrialized nations.

Powell is the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to Germany since the diplomatic crisis began. He also met Friday with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, discussing issues ranging from the possibility of expanding Germany's peacekeeping role in Afghanistan to postwar Iraq. Fischer indicated that Germany -- unlike Russia and France -- is seeking to quickly resolve differences over ending economic sanctions against Iraq.

"The current resolution is a good basis on which we can continue discussion," he said at a news conference with Powell. "And the talk we've had today made it clear that we are on a good path toward an agreement."

Had he stopped at a local newsstand, Powell could have seen a story written in English and addressed to him on the front page of the newspaper Die Zeit. "We must arrive," said the article, "at a common strategy toward peace, prosperity and security in a world without terrorism -- a world which is currently threatened by an ever growing gap between rich and poor nations."

Friedbert Pflueger, a legislator and a foreign policy specialist for the opposition, saw the hype and anxiety surrounding the secretary's trip as proof that relations remain strained.

"The very fact that everybody looks so intensely at the Powell visit shows that this is not a normal relationship," Pflueger said.

He noted that British Prime Minister Tony Blair "has a saying about playing the guitar: 'You have to plug in before you can play.' Germany has to plug in again."

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