WASHINGTON — With the battle of Baghdad raging on April 7, 2003, an intelligence tip was rushed to a special Pentagon targeting team: Saddam Hussein and his two sons had been spotted near a chicken restaurant in the city's wealthy Mansour district.
Less than 45 minutes later, a B-1 bomber obliterated the site with four satellite-guided bombs, leaving a deep crater and at least a dozen dead. The Iraqi ruler, it soon became clear, was not among them.
An Iraqi informant provided the initial tip. But U.S. officials now say confirmation came from an unusual source: two German military intelligence operatives who stayed in a Baghdad safe house after Berlin had closed its embassy.
The Germans drove by the restaurant and saw a convoy of armored vehicles with dark windows, like those used by the Iraqi strongman, parked outside. Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND, quickly passed the report to the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, which was part of the targeting team.
The previously undisclosed role of German intelligence in the widely reported attempt to decapitate the Iraqi regime highlights how the CIA and the Pentagon secretly relied on German and other foreign spy services for critical information on Iraq even as the intelligence agents' governments fiercely opposed the Bush administration's drive toward war.
That behind-the-scenes cooperation forms the backdrop as Germany's new chancellor, Angela Merkel, arrives here today on her first official visit. Officials said she aims to repair U.S.-German relations that were badly strained when her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, publicly broke with the White House over Iraq.
U.S. officials said Merkel, 51, will meet President Bush on Friday after a night in the presidential guest quarters across from the White House. The two leaders will discuss terrorism, Iran's nuclear program, Israel's leadership void and other mutual concerns, officials said.
Germany has been roiled in recent months by reports that the Bush administration has maintained secret prisons for suspected terrorists somewhere in Europe, and by public anger over the CIA's use of "extraordinary renditions," in which suspects are secretly snatched and transported to third countries, including some known to practice torture.
In a meeting with Merkel in Berlin last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the case of German citizen Khaled Masri, who alleges he was mistakenly abducted from Macedonia by U.S. operatives in 2003 and detained for five months, mostly in Afghanistan, on suspicion of terrorism ties. In a lawsuit filed in Virginia, Masri alleges he was tortured during his imprisonment.
Merkel, who in November became Germany's first female chancellor, clearly hasn't forgotten the issue. On Monday, she called for Washington to close its military prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel that the facility "can and should not exist in the longer term. Different ways and means must be found for dealing with these prisoners."
Despite those differences, administration officials view Merkel as far more amenable to U.S. interests than Schroeder, who sharply criticized Bush and U.S. policies during his two terms in office. Merkel, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, has vowed to restore transatlantic relations.
Since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, Germany has sent more troops to Afghanistan than any other country except the United States, but it has refused to commit any military forces to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
Though the use of U.S. military bases in Germany as critical logistical and transportation hubs for the war is an outward reminder of Germany's cooperation, the nation's role assisting U.S. intelligence and combat forces has been well hidden.
German officials acknowledged in recent interviews that they decided in December 2002 to leave a handful of operatives from the BND in Baghdad after the war began.
In some cases, the German officials said, the BND asked team members to eyeball sites in behalf of U.S. intelligence. The officials said the goal was to collect what they called "humanitarian intelligence" to help the U.S. avoid civilian targets or other potential mistakes, such as the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
BND officials said their operatives reported only what they could see and did not provide bombing target coordinates or other specific target data to the Pentagon. The officials said the Germans also met with their own sources and collected other intelligence on the collapsing Iraqi regime once the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003.
"We were running an operation in Baghdad," said a senior German intelligence official. "We were not taking orders from the Americans."
Similarly, although the French government bitterly opposed the Bush administration's policies on Iraq, French intelligence supplied detailed reports to the CIA from a member of Hussein's Cabinet who was a French spy.
"He said there were no weapons of mass destruction," said a former CIA official. "So we didn't believe him."