BERLIN (Reuters) - A senior German minister has said that the country, which staunchly opposed the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein, could eventually send troops to Iraq, although he ruled out any such move for now.
The government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was quick to play down Wednesday's remarks by German Defence Minister Peter Struck in a newspaper interview and in a separate briefing to reporters at a NATO defence ministers summit in Romania.
"There will be no German soldiers sent to Iraq. That will not change," a government spokesman said.
However, some analysts said Struck's comments, some made after a phone conversation with Schroeder on the troops issue, might signal a subtle shift in the German stance and could be linked to the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
"I have made very clear that within the foreseeable future, it is out of the question," Struck said at the meeting in the Romanian ski resort of Poiana Brasovin, in response to a question about sending German troops to Iraq.
"But certainly there could be times ahead, in years to come, when Germany will get involved," Struck added.
In his 2002 re-election campaign Schroeder derided plans to attack Iraq as an adventure that would set the Middle East ablaze, damaging relations with the Bush administration.
Struck's comments came just hours before U.S. President George W. Bush goes up against his Democratic challenger John Kerry in a third and final debate.
In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper, Struck welcomed Kerry's call for an international summit on Iraq.
Kerry has argued during his campaign that he would have more success than Bush in getting traditional U.S. allies and Iraq war opponents like Germany and France to help in Iraq.
"We have to see this in view of the American election campaign and as a positioning of the German government for whoever becomes the next president," said Christian Hacke, a political science professor at Bonn University.
An official at the U.S. State Department, who asked not to be named, said Secretary of State Colin Powell had spoken by telephone with his German counterpart Joschka Fischer, who reaffirmed Germany's policy on troops.
"We noted the defence minister's comments and then noted Chancellor Schroeder's (spokesman's comments). We obviously consider the chancellor authoritative. So as far as we are concerned there has been no change in Germany's policy," the official said.
The Struck comments drew quick criticism from the Greens, coalition partners of Schroeder's SPD party.
Dietmar Herz, a political science professor at Erfurt University, suggested the government might be trying to send a message about future involvement.
"The German government's Iraq stance is very popular at home and there won't be any big change in that even if Kerry wins," he said. "But Struck and Schroeder know they will have to do more in future and are gradually preparing the public for that."