As tensions rise between the United States and Germany over differences on Iraq policy, the White House on Thursday called a German government minister's comparison of President Bush to Adolf Hitler "outrageous and inexplicable."

Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin told a small group of labor union members on Wednesday that Bush was going after Iraq to divert attention from domestic problems. "That's a popular method. Even Hitler did that," the German newspaper, Schwaebisches Tagblatt, quoted her as saying.

The minister called the report misleading but did not deny the remarks.

"I would regret it very much if this matter were to cast the slightest shadow on my respect for the president of the United States," she said.

Opposition conservatives vying to defeat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats in Sunday's parliamentary elections called for her resignation.

"This shows what Schroeder and his Social Democrats really think of our American allies," said Thomas Goppel, an aide to conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber.

A German government spokesman said Schroeder could not imagine Daeubler-Gmelin had meant to liken Bush to Hitler.

"If anyone were to compare the American president with a criminal, they would have no place in the government," Schroeder said on German television network ZDF.

With the balloting approaching, Schroeder has offered repeated and outspoken opposition to Bush's drive for action against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, creating discord between the two allies.

Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer sought to downplay the impact on the relationship between the countries, but reacted strongly to the minister's remarks.

"The United States and Germany have a very long and valuable relationship, and relations between the people of the United States and Germany are very important to Americans," Fleischer said. "But this statement by the justice minister is outrageous and inexplicable."

In Thursday's editions of The New York Times columnist William Safire quoted former German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping as telling a meeting in Hamburg last month that Bush wanted to overthrow Saddam to please "a powerful -- perhaps overly powerful -- Jewish lobby."

A spokesman for Scharping, Thorben Albrecht, said the ex-minister spoke at the closed-door event but never made the remark.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., warned that "America bashing" by Schroeder is damaging U.S.-German relations.

He said that if Schroeder wins re-election and does not show a more constructive attitude toward dealing with Iraq, "then the U.S. Congress must seriously consider moving U.S. forces out of Germany and stationing them on the territory of other NATO allies who do support the United States ..."

Helms, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is not seeking re-election this fall.