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Minister denies Bush 'Hitler' slur

Daeubler-Gmelin has denied making the remarks
Daeubler-Gmelin has denied making the remarks

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BERLIN, Germany -- Germany's justice minister has denied comparing U.S. President George W. Bush to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Herta Daeubler-Gmelin blamed "erroneous and inflammatory" newspaper reports for the scandal which has dominated the last day of campaigning ahead of German national elections on Sunday.

She is alleged to have told a meeting of unionists that Bush was going after Iraq's Saddam Hussein to divert attention from domestic problems, adding: "That's a popular method. Even Hitler did that."

But at a news conference on Friday, Daeubler-Gmelin said: "It was terrible to say I had compared a democratically elected president with Hitler."

She admitted that during her conversation with union leaders they had discussed a wide range of topics, including Iraq, the U.S. and Hitler -- but insisted they were separate parts of the discussion and that to link them was taking her comments out of context.

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She added that she had stressed at the time there was no comparison between Bush and Hitler but said no recordings had been made of the conversation.

CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley said that without tape recordings it was doubtful it would ever be proved conclusively whether Daeubler-Gmelin's account or the newspaper Schwaebisches Tagblatt's story was correct.

He added that while German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has so far supported his minister, it would be interesting to see if she keeps her job should his Social Democrats remain in power after Sunday's vote.

The row is threatening to damage Schroeder just two days before a cliffhanger election as polls show him narrowly ahead of conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber.

Justice Ministry spokesman Thomas Weber, grilled by journalists with a doggedness last seen before the resignation of defence minister Rudolf Scharping in July, has repeatedly denied that the minister had made the comparison.

"Ms. Daeubler-Gmelin talked to the U.S. ambassador on the phone to clarify that the reports have no basis," he told a news conference.

The Social Democrat's general secretary, Franz Muentefering, told ZDF television: "I have spoken to her and she stresses that she didn't say it. ... She feels that she has been abused and distorted."

Newspaper editorials and opposition parties are demanding Daeubler-Gmelin's resignation.

An editorial in Bild, Germany's biggest-selling newspaper, states: "A cabinet member who makes such comparisons and does not apologise should be fired, if not by the chancellor, then by voters."

"This shows what Schroeder and his Social Democrats really think of our American allies," Thomas Goppel, an aide to Stoiber, told The Associated Press.

Schroeder has said he doubts Daeubler-Gmelin made the remark -- but added there would be no place in his cabinet for somebody who made such a comparison.

U.S. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said: "The German chancellor has damaged German relations with the United States in ways that cannot be easily repaired."

He added Congress should consider withdrawing U.S. forces from their bases in Germany if Schroeder wins re-election and Germany fails to join a "constructive" dialogue on Iraq.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the reported remarks were "outrageous and inexplicable."

The prospect of a U.S.-led war on Iraq has already coloured the election debate. Stoiber has accused Schroeder of damaging U.S.-German relations by flatly opposing German involvement in any war. (Full story)

But Schroeder's stance has been popular with voters -- turning from the prospect of certain defeat to a cliffhanger election. (Full story)

With just two days left to the election, Stoiber has failed this week to turn the focus back to domestic issues like immigration and the economy, generally seen as his strength given his success in managing his wealthy home state. (Full story)

Aware that Schroeder's anti-war rhetoric is proving a vote winner, Stoiber toughened his own stance on Thursday.

In a television interview, he said that, if elected, he might bar U.S. forces from using their German bases if Bush decided on an attack without U.N. backing, Reuters news agency reported.

Stoiber, premier of the wealthy state of Bavaria, is due to hold a final evening rally in Berlin on Friday before heading back to his state capital to Munich on Saturday.

Residents examine campaign posters for Stoiber, left, and Schroeder
Residents examine campaign posters for Stoiber, left, and Schroeder

Schroeder is heading to Germany's industrial left-wing heartland for an evening rally in Dortmund, where Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who won a third term for his Social Democrats last weekend, is due to make a guest appearance.

With the vote so close, the standing of smaller parties is crucial.

Schroeder wants to continue his alliance with the Greens, while Stoiber, if he wins, will almost certainly renew a coalition with the tax-cutting Free Democrats (FDP).

But much depends on whether the Party of Democratic Socialism, heirs to the former East German Communist Party that built the Berlin Wall, manages to get back into parliament.

If it does, the two big parties could be forced into a grand coalition with each other.

Schroeder's Social Democrats hold a narrow lead over the conservative CDU-CSU opposition, according to a poll by the Forsa institute released on Friday.

The poll of 2,021 voters for RTL television found the SPD would win between 38.5 and 39.5 percent, down from 40 percent a week ago.

The conservatives of challenger Edmund Stoiber stood on 37-38 percent compared to 38 percent a week ago.

The Greens, the SPD's junior coalition partners, were projected to win 6.5-7.5 percent, compared with 7 percent last week.

The Free Democrats were down slightly at 7-8 percent after polling 8 percent a week ago.

The survey has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, meaning the outcome of Sunday's election is too close to call.

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