Germany Says Israel Requests Patriot Missiles

Germany has a "moral duty" to protect Israel and will provide Patriot anti-missile systems to help its defense against Iraq if war erupts in the Middle East, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said.

"The security of the state of Israel and its citizens is extraordinarily important to us," Schroeder said in an interview Tuesday with the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

Earlier, the German Defense Ministry said it was examining an Israeli request to supply Patriot missiles. In Jerusalem, the Israeli defense ministry said it asked Germany for Patriot missiles more than a year ago and renewed the request during talks with the Germans last week.

"If Israel needs an increase in security, we will help -- and on time," Schroeder was quoted as saying. "This is our historic and moral duty."

The German air force has 30 Patriot missile systems in service. A report Tuesday in the German newspaper Die Welt said Israel is seeking the indefinite loan of an unspecified number of the missiles.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel. U.S.-provided Patriot missiles largely failed to stop them.

Germany is among some 50 countries discreetly contacted by President Bush to ask what they might contribute to military action against Iraq. Israel's request was separate from the U.S. move, the Defense Ministry said Tuesday.

Schroeder has recently softened his opposition to a war on Iraq after attempting to patch up relations with Bush at a NATO summit, making plain that Germany would serve as a staging area for U.S. forces in any invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

But he still rules out active German involvement, a stand that helped him win re-election in September and soured ties with the Bush administration.

In Tuesday's interview with Die Zeit, to be published in the newspaper's Thursday edition, Schroeder emphasized that the Patriot missiles were defensive weapons.

German officials often stress that their country feels a special responsibility for Israel because of the Holocaust, an argument cited even by staunch anti-war members of Schroeder's governing center-left coalition.

Winfried Nachtwei, a lawmaker with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's Greens party, said Monday that "we certainly could not just stand and watch if there were a danger to Israel's existence" in a Mideast war.