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Pressure grows for Iraq spy inquiry in Germany

Written by: Staff
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BERLIN, Mar 5 (Reuters) Allegations about the role of German spies in Iraq appear set this week to trigger an inquiry that could embarrass the intelligence services and hamper Berlin's efforts to improve relations with Washington.

A steady drip of media reports since January has alleged that two German agents in Baghdad in early 2003 fed information to the United States to help it launch the invasion of Iraq which the Berlin government had publicly opposed.

Public and, in some quarters, political outrage has been stoked by suggestions -- strongly denied by the government -- that the German spies were guiding US bombing raids even as then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was condemning them.

Two of the three opposition parties are demanding an inquiry and the third, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), will decide this week. Senior FDP politician Juergen Koppelin said a ''yes'' vote was a formality.

The combined votes of all three opposition factions would be enough to force a probe in which current and former officials would have to testify under oath. Such an inquiry could drag on for months, bringing further unwelcome attention for the BND foreign intelligence service and potentially damaging its cooperation with overseas counterparts.

''It has implications for the functions of the BND. We do depend in some areas of the world on international cooperation with other secret services, and being dragged into the limelight of public debate is not really helpful,'' said Eberhard Sandschneider, head of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Depending on the terms of reference, an inquiry could also look into other sensitive German-US security issues.

These include the alleged abduction of a German national to Afghanistan by the US Central Intelligence Agency, as well as revelations that German security officials accepted a US invitation to question two inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for terrorism suspects in Cuba.

AMERICAN IMAGE Sandschneider said ''emotionalised debates'' in Germany over Iraq and Guantanamo could hamper the efforts of conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, who succeeded Schroeder last November, to set a new positive tone in relations with Washington.

''Of course this is an issue which is easily emotionalised in the German debate, and one of the major effects could be another downturn in America's image here in Europe,'' he said.

Merkel herself is not politically threatened by any inquiry because her Christian Democrats were in opposition to Schroeder at the time of the Iraq war.

But Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her foreign minister in the right-left coalition government, is under pressure because he was Schroeder's chief of staff, responsible for overseeing the security services.

Germany has confirmed that two BND agents were in Baghdad at the start of the US invasion in March 2003, but denied that they helped the war effort. The government has, however, been forced to shift its stance since the allegations first appeared.

It initially said the only information provided to the Americans was to identify schools, hospitals and other civilian targets that must not be bombed.

But in a February. 24 report, it acknowledged the agents also provided some descriptions of the police and military presence in Baghdad, including geographic coordinates.

A BND spokesman said this was not operational support for the war, but normal ''goodwill'' intelligence-sharing.

Asked how the Americans had actually used the coordinates of Republican Guard positions and military vehicles which the Germans supplied, he said: ''At any rate not for bombing. We have checked the satellite images, we've looked at the pictures before and after the war and established that no bombs fell'' on the sites in question.

He said the positions of soldiers and vehicles were changing by the hour, and the time delay in passing on the information -- first to BND headquarters near Munich and then to the Americans -- made it irrelevant for military targeting.

The next step comes tomorrow when parliament's intelligence committee meets in secret to discuss a New York Times report last week -- denied by the German government -- which said the BND agents supplied the Americans before the Iraq war with Saddam Hussein's defence plan for Baghdad.

REUTERS SY RN1651

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