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Embassy Takeover in Berlin

August 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KEVIN DUNN: Within minutes of the occupation German police surrounded the Iraqi embassy in a residential district of Berlin. Elite members of the federal anti terrorist squad were sent to scene. It is believed two people were injured by tear gas or pepper spray when a group forced themselves into the building. In a fax sent to news agencies a previously unheard of group — the Democratic Iraqi Opposition of Germany — said it was carrying out a temporary peaceful action. A spokesman for the Iraqi opposition in exile said the action was understandable.

SPOKESMAN: Well, the action just shows the frustration of the Iraqi people –this action highlighting the frustration of the Iraqi people, the suffering of the Iraqi people, their wish to liberate their country from Saddam’s regime.

KEVIN DUNN: The protesters say they want an end to Saddam Hussein’s rule. Only this week Saddam was named as the sole candidate to run unopposed for another seven year term as president. The siege comes as a sensitive time in Germany. Chancellor Schroeder is facing a general election in five weeks time. He recently provoked controversy by ruling out German support for military action against Saddam. The occupiers of the embassy said their action was also a protest against Chancellor Schroeder. They call the occupation a symbolic liberation of a small piece of Iraqi territory.

GWEN IFILL: Terence Smith takes the story from there.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me by telephone is Steven Erlanger, Berlin bureau chief for the New York Times. Steve, welcome. Tell us how this was resolved.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, it got resolved quite quickly. It took five minutes. German police had been preparing to storm the embassy; they knew that people who took it were unarmed but what they needed was permission from Baghdad, because embassies are sovereign territory of the country that owns them. So once Baghdad gave its permission the German police went ahead and really it was done in about five minutes. Only two people were slightly injured in the action. According to the police, everyone was released basically unharmed and it’s over.

TERENCE SMITH: And the attackers, they were taken to jail?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Yes, there where are five of them. They kept saying all through the day that they were more than that. But it turned out there were only five people. They were arrested and they are being questioned by the police and presumably will be put into jail while something else happens. I don’t know what sort of charges they’ll face.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. What is known about this group? It’s a new name.

STEVEN ERLANGER: It is a new name and American intelligence people told us they never heard of them and the German intelligence people said the same. We believe that they may be some former Iraqi army officers who are kind of tired of slow pace of change in Iraq, maybe a bit fatigued with Iraqi national congress when is the London based coalition headed by Ahmed Challaby. It’s very hard to say. There’s some indication that they have been upset by comments by the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in which Schroeder has ruled out German participation in a war against Iraq and opposed it. But, you know, their motives still are pretty vague and we really don’t know very much about them.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, do you know, for example, whether they are people who came into Germany to do this or whether they were in Germany, even resident in Germany?

STEVEN ERLANGER: I don’t know for sure but I believe they were resident in Germany. Germany has given asylum to large numbers of Muslim people who have had trouble at home. Germany has a large population of Turks, of course, but other nations, other Arab peoples, and it’s very likely these were refugees from Iraq who’d been living in Germany for some time.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. So far as you can understand, what was the goal? Was it to demonstrate to the world perhaps that the opposition is now ready to take forceful action?

STEVEN ERLANGER: I believe so. I mean, they issued a statement. They faxed it from a Hamburg number in which they said this should be the first step toward the liberation of Iraq, liberation of Iraqi soil begins today — the taking of this little of Iraqi soil in Berlin. But there was no chance they were going to set off anything serious. I think they were looking for the kind of publicity they quite quickly reached.

Even Iraqi National Congress said it had nothing to do with group and condemned this kind of action in foreign soil. They said the struggle for Iraq should take place in Iraq proper. And the White House also condemned them. And I think Germans in general will be annoyed that, you know, other people are taking their fights out on German soil. I don’t know how much benefit they got for themselves, but they certainly indicated you know that there were people willing to take risks for the principle of free Iraq. As they were quite annoyed with the sort of German official position that war against Iraq right now makes no sense.

TERENCE SMITH: And the target then, was it Saddam Hussein and his government? Was it the German government or perhaps was it both?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, I think it was mostly the government of Saddam Hussein. I think these people wanted to remind Germans that there are a lot of Iraqi who want Saddam Hussein gone to show their will and spirit. They in fact as part of their statement said that the siege of embassy was intended to make the German people, its organizations and its political powers understand that our people have the desire to be free and will act upon it.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, I suppose finally, that it focuses some spotlight on Germany and in a sense makes it part of battlefield?

STEVEN ERLANGER: It certainly does that. I mean, I think it embarrasses Chancellor Schroeder also. I think they were pleased that these people weren’t armed and it could end so quickly. Also, as the days go on, one will want to know how these people got into the embassy in the first place. I mean, it’s supposed to be protected by German police. And it is said to have Iraqi armed guards in it. There will be all kinds of questions asked and certainly some of them will be about German foreign policy.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Steve Erlanger, thank you very much.