ROME, Oct 13: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Wednesday renewed his firm opposition to deploying troops to Iraq, a spokesman said, slapping down hints at a change in policy from his defense minister.
"To be clear, we will send no troops to Iraq," Schroeder said at a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in response to a question whether Germany would contribute soldiers to a NATO training mission in Iraq.
"There will be no change" in our policy at this point, said the chancellor. The questions concerning a possible change in Germany's position followed the publication of an interview in Wednesday's Financial Times in which Defense Minister Peter Struck indicated that Berlin, which fiercely opposed the US-led invasion, might deploy troops to Iraq if conditions there change.
"At present I rule out the deployment of German troops in Iraq," Struck said. "In general, however, there is no one who can predict developments in Iraq in such a way that he could make such a binding statement (about the future)."
The remarks had sparked an outcry among some members of Mr Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) and the junior partner in the ruling coalition, the Greens party.
The remarks also prompted US Secretary of State Colin Powell to pick up the phone and call German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to ask if there had been a change of position, said a US State Department spokesman in Washington.
Mr Powell made a brief telephone call to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to ask if there had been a change in Berlin's staunch opposition to Sending troops to Iraq, and was told that there had been no shift, spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Mr Powell "picked up the phone and called Foreign Minister Fischer this morning, as these reports were coming out, just to ask, 'Have you changed something?' and the foreign minister said: 'No, we haven't'," Mr Boucher told reporters. But Mr Struck, attending a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Romania Wednesday, insisted there was no difference between his position and that of his chancellor. "That is mad, the chancellor and I are of one view and that is the way it stays," he said.
But in a further twist British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon welcomed Struck's comments, which he said the German minister had repeated in the Romanian ski resort of Poiana Brasov.
"It was a very welcome observation, something that I would expect Germany as a good conscientious ally to undertake," said Hoon. "I don't see that that should come as any great surprise to anyone.
"He set out a number of conditions but made clear that Germany would want to play its part if appropriate in helping. That is obviously something that we welcome," Hoon told reporters.
Germany does plan to train hundreds of Iraqi drivers, explosives experts and others in the United Arab Emirates and Germany in the next two months. Separately, the Handelsblatt business daily reported that Schroeder's foreign policy advisor Bernd Muetzelburg had traveled to Washington two and a half weeks ago and told the campaign team of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that Germany would not send troops to Iraq.
The newspaper, citing government sources in an advance copy of its Thursday issue, said Berlin aimed to make it clear that regardless of the outcome of the US election on November 2, it would maintain its "red lines" on Iraq.
"Any US administration must know that a request for the deployment of German soldiers in Iraq would be senseless and would only drive a further wedge in the transatlantic relationship," the report quoted Rainer Arnold, the defense affairs spokesman for Schroeder's Social Democrats, as saying.
In his FT interview, however, Struck indicated Germany's support for a proposal by Kerry to convene an international conference on Iraq. "This is a very sensible proposal," he told the FT. "The situation in Iraq can only be cleared up when all those involved sit together at one table.
"Germany has taken on responsibilities in Iraq, including financial ones; this would naturally justify our involvement in such a conference," he was quoted as saying. -AFP