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Recent German statements critical of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq are politically motivated and should subside after the country’s election Sept. 22, according to Stratfor, the global intelligence agency.

But due to the country’s importance to any operation against Baghdad, Washington will still seek to manage the debate within the German public and keep opposition to a minimum.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder warned this week that a U.S. military offensive against Iraq could wreck the international alliance against terrorism, the BBC reported Aug. 7, citing the German tabloid Bild.

Last week Schroeder joined French President Jacques Chirac in saying that Germany and France would back a U.S. attack on Iraq only after Washington received approval from the U.N. Security Council.

The chancellor’s recent statements are motivated in large part by domestic politics, as Schroeder has fallen dangerously behind his conservative challenger, Edmund Stoiber, in the polls. He will try to gain points with the largely pacifist German electorate – and distinguish himself from Stoiber – by continuing his criticism of U.S. threats against Iraq.

For his part, Stoiber has said the country must move closer to Washington on military matters, but he will seek to avoid the issue of Iraq entirely. Instead, he will choose to hammer on Schroeder’s major political soft spot: the weak German economy. But no matter what the outcome, Berlin’s rhetoric on the Iraq issue will quiet after the elections.

The candidates’ views on Washington’s Iraq policy would be a concern for the White House if an attack was planned before the Sept. 22 elections, or if Schroeder could be expected to stick to his guns if elected. But both scenarios are unlikely. First, the Bush administration needs to build more international – particularly European – support for an Iraq campaign, and a recent call-up of reserve forces indicates an attack is unlikely before early next year.

Second, if re-elected, Schroeder will not risk alienating Washington by adhering to an anti-U.S. stance that will have lost its political value. Also, the chancellor has a history of caving to Washington on military issues: Despite early reservations Schroeder supported Operation Allied Force with German troops in Kosovo in 1999, despite the lack of an enabling resolution from the United Nations. Of course questions about his Iraq stance will be moot if Stoiber is elected, and it would please Washington to have an even more cooperative German leader in charge.

After remaining largely mute on the Iraq issue in spring and early summer, Schroeder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, have begun to speak up. Schroeder is desperate for ways to turn around his flagging campaign, which has been hampered by the country’s economic downturn, and he has tried to shift the discussion from the economy to issues like foreign policy. His and Fischer’s statements rejecting the immediate need for an attack on Iraq coincide with Schroeder’s slide in recent polls.

Schroeder likely sees Iraq as one area where he can draw a clear distinction between himself and Stoiber’s centrist campaign. Stoiber prefers to focus on German unemployment, which surpassed the sensitive 4 million mark in July, rather than talk foreign policy. He has maintained, however, that Germany should seek to deepen its cooperation with Washington on military affairs and foreign policy. Most suspect Stoiber’s probable foreign minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, follows such a policy as well.

Since the Bush administration likely will not strike before the German election, it is not taking Schroeder’s posturing too seriously. Still, the U.S. government will seek to minimize German public opposition to its Iraq policy, as it needs Germany’s cooperation to launch a large-scale operation to unseat Saddam Hussein.

Germany played a crucial staging role in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm – 13 of the 29 U.S. army units involved in those campaigns were deployed out of Germany, and the United States also deployed three Air Force fighter units and a tactical support unit from German bases in 1990-1991. More recently, German bases like Ramstein and the recently-closed Bad Kreuznach base played an important role in deployments of personnel and equipment to places like Kosovo in 1999.

Despite post-Cold War cutbacks in its European forces, U.S. soldiers and equipment are still heavily concentrated in Germany and form a core forward presence for Europe and the Middle East. Particularly vital are Ramstein air base, home of the United States Air Forces in Europe, which has 26,000 active-duty personnel and rapidly deployable expeditionary forces, and the U.S. Army’s European Headquarters in Heidelberg.

In an attack on Iraq, U.S. bases in Germany could help provide logistics, fighter support, refueling capabilities and medical support. Moreover, they could play a vital deployment role in planning a strike through Turkey. As part of its strategy, the United States could seek to train and deploy National Guard and Reserve troops earmarked for an attack to large, underutilized bases in Europe – particularly in Germany – for advanced training. From there they could link up with pre-positioned equipment and deploy quietly to Turkey to prepare for an attack.

The United States really needs nothing more than quiet acquiescence from Berlin to implement such a strategy, and does not necessarily require full public backing of the chancellor, whoever it may be. Nevertheless, any large-scale operation in Iraq would be made much easier by an openly supportive government in Berlin than without it.

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