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Gun-shy Germany mulls arms for Iraq

Strife in Iraq is testing Germany's post-war restraint on weapons exports to war zones, as Berlin wages an agonised debate about arming Kurds battling Islamic State jihadists.

BERLIN: Strife in Iraq is testing Germany's post-war restraint on weapons exports to war zones, as Berlin wages an agonised debate about arming Kurds battling Islamic State jihadists.

Fellow European heavyweights Britain and France have followed the United States in offering weapons to Kurdish fighters. But Germany, a major arms manufacturer, was still on the fence ahead of an EU crisis meeting on Iraq on Friday (Aug 15).

Citing restrictions limiting arms exports into raging conflicts, the German government has said only that it is "carefully reviewing" a weapons delivery to Kurdish troops to help them push back an onslaught by radical IS militants.

After a week of anguished back-and-forth about what Berlin could do to help the embattled Iraqi population, German military transporters flew to the Kurdish city of Arbil Friday to deliver medical and food supplies.

But as far as supplying arms, the focus of a EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, Chancellor Angela Merkel went from a flat "no" on Monday to a more open stance in an interview published on Friday.

"The suffering of the people in northern Iraq, of the Yazidis, Christians and others, at the hands of the terror group Islamic State is appalling," she told the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung. She said halting the advance of the extremists was a task for "the entire international community".

"This requires humanitarian aid and the possible supply of equipment for those who are fighting against the terrorists," she said. "When it comes to arms exports, the government always has some political and legal leeway, and if necessary we will exhaust it."


Germany, still struggling with the legacy of its aggression in two world wars, has generally been reluctant to send troops or weapons into foreign war zones. A poll by the Emnid institute conducted on Wednesday found that 71 per cent of respondents opposed the idea of German arms shipments to Iraq.

But that reticence drew fire this week from critics including Merkel's former defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who fumed that Germany was "letting the others do the dirty work in Iraq".

The current defence chief, close Merkel ally Ursula von der Leyen, announced on Tuesday after talks with her British counterpart that Germany was ready to send "non-lethal" military aid such as armoured vehicles. She added that if a "genocide" loomed in Iraq, the issue of arming the Kurds should be "debated intensively" in Germany.

A decade after the then left-leaning German government vehemently opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq, the top-selling daily Bild, which generally reflects the pacifist streak in the German population, backed the tougher stance. "Germany, a country of hesitation and chancellor speeches, has finally learned it needs to act," it said. The Kurds "need arms", Bild added, calling it a "test of German engagement commensurate with its global responsibilities".

Political scientist Henning Riecke at Berlin's German Council on Foreign Relations, called the debate "healthy" particularly as it "is taking place in public" and not just in the corridors of power.

But he said a German move to ship arms to Iraq would not mark a "paradigm shift" as there are exceptions built into the weapons export guidelines that have been in place in their current form for 14 years. "The traditional German policy of restraint still applies," he said.

However Anna Hankings-Evans, an expert in international law at Berlin's Free University, called the debate "a milestone in German foreign policy", particularly because it crossed party lines. "The trend is there, there is no longer total opposition," she said.

Von der Leyen, however, tried to take a bit of urgency out of the discussion as she watched the German military transport planes take off for Iraq filled with food, medicine and blankets.

"The Kurds primarily use weapons from the former Soviet Union such as Kalashnikovs and other heavy equipment. Those are the weapons systems they are asking for because they know how to use them and can put them to immediate use against IS," she said. "Germany doesn't have such weapons and couldn't supply them at short notice." 

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