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Germany hoping to thaw U.S. ties

Fischer, right, hopes a U.S. visit can smooth ties between Bush and Schroeder, left
Fischer, right, hopes a U.S. visit can smooth ties between Bush and Schroeder, left

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German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is expected to visit Washington to mend relations with the Bush administration. CNN's Stephanie Halasz reports (October 17)
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BERLIN, Germany (CNN) -- Germany is hoping a visit by its foreign minister to Washington will help thaw relations chilled by their chancellor's strong stance against a war on Iraq.

Joschka Fischer plans to meet his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the coming weeks.

The visit is an effort to mend fences ahead of the next meeting between their bosses, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and U.S. President George W. Bush, which could come at a NATO conference in the Czech capital of Prague next month.

But even if U.S.-German ties thaw, it will be difficult -- if not impossible -- for Berlin to follow the United States into a new Gulf conflict.

The German defence ministry says it is already overstretched, with eight military operations outside Germany and almost 9,000 soldiers stationed abroad.

Even if the Germans were asked to participate in a war against Iraq, they say, they could not do it. Politically, the country is also opposed to war with Iraq. Schroeder was re-elected on September 22, largely on the back of his anti-war rhetoric.

"There is a threat coming from the country but its not an immediate threat, so we would have to wage something like a preventive military campaign, and I don't think that Germany is ready for that kind of military intervention," said Hans-Ulrich Klose of Schroeder's Social Democrats.

The opposition, though, argues Schroeder's stance has greatly hurt Germany's clout abroad.

"Mr. Schroeder has done a good job for his party, he has won elections, but he has lost confidence, reliability and he doesn't play any role in formulating future politics, also not formulating future politics vis a vis the Iraqi government, so we have lost weight in international affairs," said Friedbert Pflueger of the opposition Christian Democrats.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Germany pledged its full support to the U.S.-led war on terror.

But in May, when Bush visited Germany, he was greeted by large demonstrations protesting against a possible attack on Iraq.

The German government remained silent on the subject until August, when Schroeder said his country would not participate in any war against Iraq -- even with a U.N. mandate.

Relations with Washington cooled after that announcement. And matters were made worse when a German government minister was alleged to have compared Bush to Hitler.

And although Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin said she never made the remarks, she resigned from her post soon after.

Schroeder sought to defuse tensions with a conciliatory letter to Bush, but U.S. officials said relations between the two countries had been "poisoned."

The White House reacted coolly to Schroeder's re-election win, issuing a short statement that neither congratulated him nor mentioned him by name.

Relations appeared to be warming earlier this month, when Bush sent German President Johannes Rau a statement of congratulations on the 12th anniversary of the country's reunification.

But Foreign Minister Fischer will still have hurdles to overcome when he visits Washington.

In an interview with Handelsblatt daily newspaper, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle suggested that if Schroeder wanted to improve ties between the two countries, he should resign.

And when asked by reporters in Paris if he felt he should apologise to the U.S. president, Schroeder said, "I do not understand the question."

-- CNN Correspondent Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report

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