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German-U.S. relations remain strained 2 years after Iraq invasion

BERLIN—Two years after Germany and the United States parted ways over invading Iraq, they're still trying to find a way back to their traditionally warm relations. It hasn't been easy.

President Bush will skip Berlin later this month when he visits Germany, in part because of concerns over massive protests, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld initially decided not to attend an important international security conference in Munich that starts Friday after activists demanded that German prosecutors charge him with war crimes.

Prosecutors announced Thursday that they won't pursue the charges, lifting the possibility that Rumsfeld would face arrest when he arrived in Germany and making it "likely," in the word of one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, that Rumsfeld would travel to Munich from Nice, France, where he spent Thursday talking with leaders about defense issues.

The German official in charge of U.S. relations for the Foreign Ministry, Karsten Voigt, called the episode an embarrassment: "Embarrassing for him and embarrassing for us."

Voigt acknowledged that the United States and Germany are having a hard time determining what their relationship should be now.

"During the Cold War, we were seen as an automatic yes for the United States," Voigt said. "When we disagreed on Iraq, I believe many in Washington mistakenly decided we had become an automatic no. We're not. But we can't be taken for granted."

The slowness with which German officials responded to the possible charges against Rumsfeld shows the difficulty. A private group of U.S. and German activists asked German prosecutors to charge Rumsfeld with war crimes and torture involving Iraq and the war on terrorism.

That prompted Rumsfeld to question the wisdom of attending the annual Munich security conference, traditionally one of the most influential international working sessions of the year in defense circles, unless the government dismissed the request. This year's meeting topics are expected to be Iraq, the post-Yasser Arafat Palestinian situation and the future of NATO.

Two years ago, Rumsfeld used the conference to divide the continent between "old Europe" and "new Europe." Last year, he used it to talk about the success of the war in Iraq and to search for military assistance there.

It wasn't until noon Thursday that Chief German Prosecutor Kay Nehm said the case against Rumsfeld wouldn't be pursued. He noted that the United States had the ability and the will to prosecute inside its own borders, so Germany had no reason to get involved.

Still, Voigt said, relations are warming, and Germans continue to regard the United States as their most important ally outside the European Union. He noted that while they're not about to commit troops to Iraq, they did allow the United States to fly over the country and to stage the invasion from its bases in Germany. And, he added, German officials were very pleased with the voter turnout in Iraq in parliamentary elections Jan. 30.

"We disagreed on the war, this is true," he said. "But even those against the war didn't want the United States to fail."

Opposition groups are gearing up for Bush's visit two weeks from now. Andreas Atzl, the coordinator for the "Not Welcome, Mr. Bush" alliance, boasted that the massive protests that clogged Berlin's streets during Bush's visit in 2002 "were not in vain. It's clear Bush is not welcome in Berlin."

He said his group would bus protesters to the town of Mainz, which Bush will visit Feb. 23, in hopes of shutting it down.

"We are protesting against Bush's war in Iraq and the threats to Iran, the curtailing of human rights in connections with fighting terror but also our government's support and emulation of some of these policies," he said Thursday. "We expect the European Union and our federal government to distance itself clearly from such politics."

Mainz police expect the protest to cause problems for city residents, but not to disrupt official activities. They've advised commuters to use mass transport or take the day off work.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): NATO

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