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New era of U.S-German relations set to begin

BERLIN—When new German Chancellor Angela Merkel sits down on Friday with President Bush in Washington, they'll be ushering in a new era of trans-Atlantic relations—that much is clear. But what those relations will be is less certain.

After three years of European division and acrimony over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Bush finally has a German friend in Merkel. Yet Merkel has shown that, like much of Europe, she finds some of Bush's policies distasteful, and analysts are wondering how far she'll be willing to go in voicing disagreement.

"She has to battle the image of being Bush's poodle," said Karl-Heinz Kamp, a security policy coordinator for the conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin.

Merkel's strongest criticism of Bush policy to date came last week when she told Der Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine, that the U.S. prison camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed.

"An institution like Guantanamo in its present form cannot and must not exist in the long term. We must find different ways of dealing with prisoners," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, there's no question about that."

The timing of the remarks, just ahead of her trip to the United States, was seen here as hardly coincidental. In 2003, Merkel was widely criticized in Germany for speaking in favor of Bush's Iraq policy during a trip to Washington, even though German government policy opposed it. Her comments were seen as breaking a taboo against showing division in foreign affairs.

"She was seen by many after that visit as uncritically pro-Bush," Kamp said.

Merkel also has expressed concerns about the U.S. practice of rendition—sending suspected terrorists to third countries for interrogation, where some say they've been tortured. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited in December, Merkel asked specifically about the legality of the seizure of German citizen Khaled al-Masri. U.S. agents took al-Masri from Macedonia to Afghanistan, where he was held for five months before he was released. Merkel said the United States admitted that al-Masri's arrest had been a mistake.

It's unknown whether Merkel will raise the issue again when she meets with Bush, but there's little doubt in Germany that she's the only European leader with the staying power to help Bush improve his relations with Europe, where he's strongly disliked.

The influence of Bush's main European allies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is waning. Analysts believe Blair will leave office in the next year, and Berlusconi is dogged by allegations of corruption and inefficiency.

That leaves Merkel in a key position. The Times of London recently called her "Europe's new power broker."

"Germany is the biggest player in Europe, and she's the newest leader," said Richard Whitman, the head of the European Program for the Britain's Chatham House research center. "She's untainted by the past."

Merkel, who took office in November, already has succeeded on domestic and European fronts. The German parliament passed laws she favored that increase governmental transparency, raise sales taxes and grant tax breaks to parents. And she won continentwide praise when she chided European Union members for sacrificing progress to quibble about small amounts of money.

Whitman said he doesn't expect Merkel to offer Bush much: She won't reverse Germany's refusal to send troops to Iraq or increase the German presence in Afghanistan. But she gets along with Bush.

"She may disagree on issues, but she offers a sympathetic ear," he said.

Jan Friedrich Kallmorgen, a trans-Atlantic specialist with the German Council on Foreign Relations, said he expects Merkel won't be as critical of Bush as her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who aligned Germany with Europe as a counterweight to U.S. influence, was. But she also won't return to the days when Germany saw itself as tied to the United States. Her comments about Guantanamo in Der Spiegel show that, he said.

"It does make a statement to Germans and Europeans that she's not forgetting their concerns about the war on terror," he said.

Karsten Voigt, a coordinator for German-American affairs with the German Foreign Ministry who'll accompany Merkel on her visit to the United States, said Merkel's Guantanamo comments were the result of her growing up in then-communist East Germany and believing that the United States was a symbol of freedom. He said her statements reflect her belief that a U.S. president would want to hear open and honest criticism.

"Washington will be eager to see how she defines herself as chancellor, but so will we," he said. "This is a new role for Germany, involvement in international issues when we are not the cause or the location of the crisis."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-MERKEL

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