Germany expresses regret at U.S. troop pullout

By Geir Moulson BERLIN, AP

Germany’s defense minister expressed regret Tuesday about U.S. plans to restructure its forces abroad — changes expected to hit Germany the hardest with the pullout of two heavy divisions. Japan and Australia embraced the changes.

The plan, outlined Monday by President George W. Bush, would bring up to 70,000 troops back to the United States from western Europe and Asia within a decade. It is part of a military realignment meant to confront post Cold War threats such as Islamic terrorism.

Though the withdrawal will be spread over years, areas of southern and western Germany with U.S. bases will feel a sharp economic impact, including the likely loss of tens of thousands of local jobs. Germany is home to some 70,000 U.S. soldiers, the bulk of the American military presence in Europe.

“I regret this very much,” German Defense Minister Peter Struck told reporters during a visit to troops in northern Germany. “This is a serious loss for those regions.”

U.S. defense officials said the two German-based divisions, the 1st Armored and the 1st Infantry, will be withdrawn under the plans.

German commentators and officials viewed the changes as the closing of a historic chapter that saw American troops arrive as occupiers at the end of World War II and stay as protectors against a Soviet invasion on the Cold War’s front line.

In Japan and South Korea, however, officials said they did not expect major fallout from Bush’s announcement. The United States bases some 50,000 troops in Japan and another 37,000 in South Korea, where they counter North Korea’s large military.

“I don’t think there will be big changes for us,” South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told reporters. Washington already disclosed earlier this year plans to cut a third of its forces in the country. Please see TROOP on page

Japan and Australia both applauded the review of U.S. forces. A Japanese Foreign Ministry statement said it “will better suit the global security environment and further contribute to peace and security.”

“While the number of U.S. forces deployed around the world may reduce, the review is designed to develop a force that is better able to respond to a wider range of contingencies,” said Australia’s defense minister, Robert Hill.

Major shifts would not begin before 2006 under the plan, which would see the United States close scores of installations in Europe and consolidate forces at larger bases. More than 200,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed overseas.

In Germany, the Foreign Ministry’s top official for relations with Washington also signaled agreement with the aims of the U.S. review, arguing that “Europe’s security is not in danger.”

But Karsten Voigt added that the waning U.S. presence in Germany underlines the need to adapt trans-Atlantic relations to a changing world.

“What is important is that we no longer approach the trans-Atlantic alliance from the viewpoint of memories of what we did together in the Cold War, but that we instead cultivate and renew it in view of the new risks and dangers that now arise from outside Europe to the trans-Atlantic community,” Voigt told Deutschlandfunk radio.

German-U.S. ties were strained by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s vehement opposition to last year’s U.S.-led war in Iraq. The two governments have since moved to repair relations, with Schroeder offering help in efforts to rebuild Iraq.

Bild, Germany’s most-read daily, suggested that Germany’s opposition to the war in Iraq was a factor in the U.S. decision _ though both governments deny that.

“Germany as an ally is no longer what it was,” the paper said in an editorial Tuesday. “It’s also the anti Americanism that set the wheels in motion.”

But another daily, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, said the withdrawal “strategically has little to do with a U.S. administration wish to pay back the Germans for their unusual contrariness.”

In Washington, Pentagon officials said on condition of anonymity that the United States would make greater use of training and logistics bases on the soil of new allies like Uzbekistan, Poland and Romania.

Bartosz Weglarczyk, a columnist for Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote that any such a move would mean “profits for the local community, but also new guarantees of security and Poland’s promotion in the international arena.”

Still, the Defense Ministry said there were no plans to station U.S. forces on Polish territory. While U.S. use of Polish test ranges is a “permanent element” of relations between the two countries, a ministry statement said, it has no knowledge at present of plans to increase their use.