Merkel Vows to Improve German-U.S. Ties

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Signaling a change in style, Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged Wednesday to put aside past differences between Germany and the United States even as she pressed for the Bush administration to take seriously European concerns about alleged CIA prisons in Europe.

"Let the battles of the past lie — those battles have been fought," Merkel said in her first speech to parliament as chancellor. "As far as the future is concerned, the new government will work with all its strength for a close, honest, open and trusting relationship in the trans-Atlantic partnership."

The new leader also promised to stand firm in her first crisis abroad — the kidnapping of a German woman in Iraq. She said Berlin would not be blackmailed by captors' demands that Germany stop all contacts with the Iraqi government.

But she did not say whether her government would fulfill U.S. hopes of more assistance to Iraq. Germany is helping train Iraqi police and military officers outside the country, and Merkel has said it still will not send troops into Iraq.

In European policy, she indicated a shift in emphasis by reaching out to smaller nations that were irritated by her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder's cozy alliance with France.

Merkel, a conservative, took office last week in a coalition with Schroeder's Social Democrats. While she used the speech Wednesday to set her own tone and agenda for the next four years, her remarks also reflected the delicate balance of that alliance.

She inherits relations with Washington that were strained by Schroeder's vehement stance against the Iraq war. France and Russia joined Germany in defying the Bush administration over the war — a position that divided Europe, with some smaller countries like Poland aligning themselves with Washington.

Merkel had been expected to reverse her predecessor's antagonism toward the United States.

This week, the new chancellor sent Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was Schroeder's chief of staff, to Washington. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due in Berlin next week, and Merkel will meet President Bush in Washington on Jan. 11.

The two leaders "look forward to discussing how the United States and Germany can intensify our partnership, strengthen trans-Atlantic ties, and work together to advance freedom and prosperity around the world," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Merkel starts out just as allegations that the CIA ran prisons for al-Qaida captives in Eastern Europe and operated clandestine flights cast a new shadow over trans-Atlantic relations. Steinmeier raised the issue with Rice on Tuesday.

"I believe we can trust ... that the American government is taking European concerns seriously and in the near future will clear up the recent reports on apparent CIA prisons and illegal flights," Merkel said.

She stressed that "we will be not be silent on human rights violations with anyone in the world" — a comment that appeared aimed in part at China and Russia, with which Schroeder also pursued close relations.

Addressing the kidnapping crisis, Merkel said nothing was yet known about the motives behind the attack on German aid worker Susanne Osthoff, who disappeared Friday. The kidnappers have threatened to kill Osthoff and her Iraqi driver unless Germany halts all contacts with the Iraqi government.

"This government, this parliament, will not let ourselves be blackmailed," Merkel said.

Closer to home, Merkel's speech reflected her skepticism about Turkey's bid to join the European Union, even as she stuck to the coalition line of support for membership talks.

The negotiations "are a process with an open end ... whose outcome cannot be guaranteed in advance," she said. Merkel added that any country hoping to join the EU "must fulfill all the conditions without restriction."

She said the bloc's continuing expansion raises "fundamental questions: how far does Europe reach and what is the purpose of European unification?"

To bolster that unification, Merkel said Germany will help solve the EU's crisis over its constitution and future budget — though she warned that the country would not overburden itself financially to do so.

The problem can be solved only "with our neighbors, our partners — and that means the big ones and the small ones," she said, adding that Germany should be "a mediator and balancing factor."

Merkel already has visited France and Britain as well as EU and NATO headquarters. She is due Friday in Poland.

Warsaw was irritated by Schroeder's close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the two leaders' decision to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Poland.

Merkel said Germany would continue efforts with France and Britain to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Her foreign minister said he hoped Iran would be "clever enough" to engage in serious talks.

"The patience of those negotiating and who have many rounds of talks behind them is finite," Steinmeier said.