WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- German spies helped target Saddam Hussein for American bombers to launch the Iraq War, according to German media reports timed to appear on the day that Germany's new Chancellor arrives in Washington.
The timing of the reports in the magazine Der Spiegel, in the newspaper Suddeuutsche Zeitung and on the ARD public TV channel may be a happy coincidence for the newly elected Chancellor Angela Merkel and her first meeting with President George W. Bush.
The reports of close U.S.-German intelligence cooperation in Iraq, even as the then German government was denouncing the war, should help buttress Merkel's insistence that Germany and the United State remain firm friends, even if they sometimes differ.
But the claims will do little for the reputation of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, already tarnished by his acceptance of a highly paid job from the Russian Gazprom energy giant, helping to run the new Russo-German pipeline project that he helped to negotiate.
Six months before the war on Iraq began, fighting a tough re-election race, Schroeder told his peace-minded voters that Germany "will not make itself available for any adventures under my leadership." His firm anti-war stance, along with speeches from his fellow Social Democrats suggesting that Bush was a cowboy, a modern Roman Emperor and even using a "Big Lie" like Hitler, helped Schroeder squeeze back into power on a platform that was overtly critical of U.S. policy. This cast a lasting pall on U.S.-German relations. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said they had been "poisoned."
But all along, behind the scenes, Germany's intelligence service Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) was highly active inside Iraq, and their reports were forwarded directly to their American counterparts. This went far beyond the routine sharing of intelligence findings and conclusions that is standard practice among NATO allies. German agents in Baghdad directly cooperated with the U.S. air strikes by helping to pick targets.
The German press reports even suggest that the attempted killing of Saddam Hussein, his sons and immediate aides, in a hastily-arranged Stealth bomber attack on a restaurant complex in Baghdad's fashionable Mansour suburb, was launched on the basis of a German intelligence agent's report of Saddam's whereabouts. The prospect of hitting this crucial target of opportunity led the American planners to take the obvious risk of collateral civilian casualties, and at least 12 Iraqis are believed to have died as a result of the air strike.
"Despite the troubles in the relationship between Berlin and Washington, the political decision was made to continue the close relationship of the intelligence services," an unidentified source from the BND told the ARD TV program.
Chancellor Schröder's office knew all about the intelligence cooperation, and decided not to stop it, Der Spiegel reports.
The German embassy in Baghdad was evacuated and closed three days before the war began on March 20, 2003. But at least two BND employees stayed behind in a Baghdad safe house, and according to Der Spiegel "allegedly helped the Americans by identifying non-targets -- such buildings as embassies, schools and hospitals that should not be bombed."
The BND's official spokesman has now denied that the agency helped the Americans with data on targeting, although there has so far been no formal denial of help given to the British, whose Royal Air Force also took part in the bombing, and with whose SIS Intelligence arm the BND has long had close ties.
The BND has confirmed that its agents were in Baghdad during the war, but claims that they "provided neither of the warring parties with targets or coordinates for bombing. The BND collected, analyzed and communicated information to the German government within the framework of its legal obligations."
The ARD-TV program quoted a "former Pentagon employee" as its source for the claim that the BND agents helped pick targets, and even mounted intelligence operations at American request. According to ARD, the April 7 bombing strike against Saddam Hussein at the Mansour restaurant came after the U.S. received reports of a convoy of official black Mercedes cars arriving at the restaurant. American intelligence officials then asked the Germans to go to the restaurant site and confirm that the vehicles included the armored limousines that indicated Saddam's presence. The BND agents did so, and sent in the confirmation that became the trigger for the air strike.
The revelations have sparked angry denunciations inside Schroeder's Social Democrat Party and among his coalition partners in the Green party. Former foreign minister Joschka Fischer, to whom the BND should in principle report, said Thursday that he had "nothing to hide" and called for a public inquiry.
The affair usefully serves to distract attention from Chancellor Merkel's recent critical remark that the controversial U.S. detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in its present form cannot and must not exist in the long term." There is considerable concern in the German media about one inmate, Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen who was born and brought up in Germany.