German coalition faces test over Iraq dealings

The left-right coalition of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was on Tuesday facing its first significant test of parliamentary unity. Opposition parties have decided to call an inquiry into the involvement of the government of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder in secret service activities in Iraq and Europe.

The inquiry will raise the political pressure on foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was secret services co-ordinator under Mr Schröder and has been struggling to emerge from a series of crises since taking office in November.

Legislators from the three opposition parties – the Greens, the liberal Free Democrats and the ex-communist Left party – agreed on Tuesday to use their combined votes to convene the inquiry following media reports this month that two agents from Germany’s BND foreign secret service based in Iraq had helped US intelligence staff identify bombing targets.

Mr Schröder’s Social Democrat-led government opposed the Iraq war and argued that Germany had not supported it in any way. Mr Steinmeier admitted this week that, as part of normal intelligence gathering, the BND agents were in Iraq but had only passed to the US information on sites such as hospitals that should not be attacked.

At the time Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats criticised Mr Schröder’s strident anti-war stance, but now she headed a coalition with the SPD she was keen to minimise the political damage to SPD members of her cabinet, officials said. The CDU on Tuesday joined the SPD in opposing the inquiry, which is likely to start in February at the earliest.

Parliamentary inquiries in Germany represent a powerful tool for the opposition. An inquiry last year into a scandal over German visa rules played a key part in undermining public confidence in Mr Schröder’s government.

Yet it remained unclear on Tuesday night whether the new inquiry would be as effective, because the opposition parties are divided on the purpose of the investigation. The FDP and Left party aim to highlight alleged double-standards in the anti-war stance of the Schröder government. In contrast, the Greens, the SPD’s junior partner at the time, want to ensure their record of opposition to the US invasion is not blemished.

Depending on the terms of reference, the inquiry may also examine German government knowledge of secret CIA flights in Europe.

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