Foreign Minister in Baghdad Visit to Iraq Underscores Germany's Shift in Policy

Frank-Walter Steinmeier landed in Baghdad on Tuesday for the first visit to Iraq by a German foreign minister in 22 years. The gesture underscores a significant shift in Germany's policies toward the war-torn country.


In the end, the only real surprise was the timing: On Tuesday morning, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier landed at the Baghdad International Airport. SPIEGEL reported back in November that Steinmeier, who is running against Chancellor Angela Merkel in general elections scheduled for September, was interested in visiting the Iraqi capital. And his objective is clear: He wants to put an end to the extended German-American quarrel regarding the Iraq War once and for all.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday, where he was greeted by his Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari.
REUTERS

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday, where he was greeted by his Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari.

Steinmeier's plane -- a Transall belonging to the German military -- touched down at 9:15 a.m., arriving from Amman, Jordan where he had spent the night. It was the first Iraq visit by a German foreign minister in 22 years.

The foreign minister isn't alone. Along with the standard team of diplomats and journalists, Steinmeier is accompanied by veteran members of the German parliament Otto Schily and Peter Gauweiler along with a handful of business representatives. An impressive team of security personnel also made the trip.

It is perhaps the most dangerous trip abroad Steinmeier has yet undertaken. Baghdad, of course, is no longer as brutal as it was prior to the US deployment of thousands of extra troops to Iraq in 2007. In addition to the so-called "Surge," the US military also managed to create alliances with local warlords, which helped to radically reduce day-to-day violence in the country. Still, Baghdad is a dangerous city -- likely on par with the Afghanistan capital of Kabul.

For this reason, the exact date of Steinmeier's trip was kept secret as long as possible. Still, he wasn't nearly as secretive as French President Nicolas Sarkozy was last week, when he made a visit to Iraq that few had gotten wind of in advance. In comparison, word of Steinmeier's trip was widespread.

And it is a calculated one. In Gerhard Schröder's government in 2003, Steinmeier served as the chancellor's chief of staff, making him one of the chief architects of Germany's opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Now, as Germany's foreign minister, Steinmeier wants to bring that chapter to a demonstrative close.

During former President George W. Bush's last term, such a gesture from Steinmeier would have been unimaginable. And when former German Economics Minister Michael Glos flew to Baghdad last summer, the foreign minister, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), advised him against it.

But since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, everything has changed -- including the way in which Germany is dealing with Iraq. Officials inside Germany's Foreign Ministry speak of a "new beginning in German-Iraqi relations at the appropriate point in time." The trip is also evidence that Berlin is again a "partner of first choice" for Baghdad.

A Door-Opener for German Businesses

The fact that Steinmeier also plans to spend two days in Iraq is further evidence of his commitment. He's having lunch with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, after which he will meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In Berlin's view, al-Maliki has done a good job of strengthening his position. During recent regional elections, Maliki's party expanded its influence. The prime minister also succeeded in obliging the Americans to withdraw more quickly by passing a status-of-forces agreement stipulating a pullout.

But Steinmeier also wants to be a "door opener" for German business as he unselfconsciously likes to say. German companies want to get a stake of the rebuilding of the destroyed country, whether it be in the healthcare sector, the automobile industry or energy. The foreign minister plans to open a service office for German business in Baghdad.

Still, Germans doing business in Baghad will likely remain the exception -- at least for the near future. The companies must also primarily make local hires, since the risk of bodily injury or kidnap in the Iraqi capital city is still too great for Westerners. Indeed, the German Foreign Ministry still has a travel advisory on its Web site warning its nationals from traveling to Baghdad. That, of course, doesn't apply to the foreign minister.

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