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Photos cause outrage in Germany

Soldiers used an Afghan skull as a prop. Controversy comes as role of nation's military is being redefined.

October 26, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — It wasn't the best day for the picture of a German soldier simulating oral sex with a skull to have appeared in the nation's biggest newspaper.

The outrage Wednesday about photographs of German troops posing with a skull in Afghanistan swept through Parliament just as Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration announced a major restructuring of the military to handle increased international missions.

The five pictures appeared in Bild under the headline: "German Soldiers Desecrate a Dead Person." They show the skull in various positions, including mounted on a jeep and held near the waist of a soldier with his fatigues unzipped. The newspaper blocked out the faces of the troops.

Editors reported that the skull might be the remains of a villager pulled from a mass grave or of a Soviet soldier killed during Afghanistan's occupation in the 1980s.

Bild is known for titillating scoops. However, the photographs, believed to have been taken about two years ago, disturbed a nation whose Nazi past has made many Germans wary of deploying their military to foreign lands. The government was concerned that the pictures might be used by Taliban and other Islamic militants to instigate a backlash against the 2,800 German troops serving in Afghanistan.

"It is clear and unambiguous that such behavior on the part of German soldiers absolutely cannot be tolerated," Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said. "These pictures arouse repugnance and horror." He told reporters that an investigation by the ministry could end in "disciplinary and even criminal measures" for members of a unit stationed near Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Military officials said the matter had been referred to prosecutors. Two of the soldiers in the pictures, including one who has since left the army, are being questioned.

Desecrating the dead can carry a three-year prison sentence in Germany.

The publicity is an embarrassment for the army, which since the end of World War II has stressed to its recruits that they are accountable for their actions.

Bernhard Gertz, head of an organization representing German soldiers, called the photos "absolutely disgusting.... We can't use such people in our army. We must investigate exactly how such degeneration and misbehavior can happen despite good training and good supervision."

He added that the "terrorist enemy will, of course, exploit such things and say, 'Look, that's how the nonbelievers are dealing with us.' "

Germany has about 250,000 military personnel, including about 55,000 conscripts. More than 9,000 soldiers and sailors are stationed in peacekeeping missions in Lebanon, Serbia's Kosovo province and other regions. Germany plans to reduce its troop contingent in Afghanistan to 1,800. Members of the multinational forces are urging Germany to rotate its units out of the relatively calm north to the south, where the Taliban and allied militants are growing stronger.

The military restructuring announced Wednesday is a response to increasing danger from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The aim is to prepare the armed forces to react to terrorist threats at home and to expand international missions, including peacekeeping and patrolling the seas. The plan is expected to complicate the debate over whether Germany, like some of its European neighbors, should break the tradition of mandatory military service.

"German security policy has to take into account developments happening in regions that are geographically far away," states the 133-page report that defines the restructuring. It is the first such overhaul since 1994 and, according to the report, preserves Germany's cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. The study states that Germany's population, economy and position in the center of continent "give it a central role for the future" of Europe and beyond.

In supporting the new military vision, Jung alluded to how terrorist threats could affect economies and energy sources.

"Eighty percent of our trade occurs on the seas, which naturally includes the security of energy supplies and raw materials," Jung said.

"After an oil tanker was attacked by terrorists in the Strait of Hormuz in 2002, it is clear that such terrorist activities need to be eliminated when it comes to the energy security and supplies and free trade on the seas."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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