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Bush blamed for Merkel opposition to Brandenburg date for Obama

Despite furious denials, suspicion is growing that President George Bush has put pressure on the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to block a proposed speech by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at the Brandenburg Gate this month.

The Obama campaign is remaining tight-lipped about the controversy, saying yesterday that the candidate "has considered several sites for a possible speech, and he will choose one that makes most sense for him and his German hosts."

Germany is already in a swoon over Mr Obama and near-constant comparisons are made between him and President John F Kennedy, who is still revered, especially in Berlin.

If Mr Obama cannot speak at the famous gate, he may address his European fans at Tempelhof airport, where the Berlin airlift was launched, or at Schöneberg town hall, where in 1963 President Kennedy delivered the speech that contained the famous line: "Ich bin ein Berliner". Another suggestion is that Mr Obama speak in front of the Reichstag, Germany's parliament. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used the Brandenburg Gate to deliver speeches when they were in office.

Ms Merkel's office argues that allowing Mr Obama to speak at the historic gate would be tantamount to an endorsement by the government. "The Brandenburg Gate is too important to misuse it for internal American affairs," a spokesman said.

The spokesman added that Ms Merkel had only a " limited understanding" of Mr Obama's proposals and suggested that she thought the idea of using the Brandenburg Gate would be inappropriate.

"No German candidate for high office would think of using the National Mall in Washington for a rally because it would not be seen as appropriate," the spokesman said.

The German government insisted yesterday that there had been no interference from the White House and Mr Obama was welcome in Berlin even if details of his visit are still unclear. However, Ulrich Wilhelm, the government spokesman, said Ms Merkel had not dropped her objections to his speaking at the Brandenburg Gate.

Ms Merkel managed to divide German political opinion earlier this week after she expressed strong reservations about Mr Obama's plans.

However, evidence emerged yesterday which suggested that Ms Merkel could have been pressured into objecting to Mr Obama's plans by the Bush administration. A report in Germany's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper said that one of Ms Merkel's top advisers had been criticised by a member of the Bush team over the planned Obama visit during the G8 summit in Japan.

"Christoph Heusen, the Chancellor's foreign policy spokesman, was approached by an adviser from the Bush team and ticked off about Obama's plans," the paper wrote. Ms Merkel's government refused to comment on the allegations yesterday, but opposition politicians went on the offensive. Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's governing Social Democrat mayor, who favours an Obama speech at the gate, warned: "Ms Merkel must be careful not to let herself be used as a pawn. It might be that she received directions from President Bush in Japan."

Jürgen Trittin, the deputy leader of the Green party, accused Ms Merkel of "acting in the interests of President Bush and John McCain, who wants to continue Bush's foreign policy".

Mr Obama's plans for a Brandenburg Gate speech have also divided the German government. Frank Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat Foreign Minister, has backed the idea along with some renegade conservative and liberal politicians. "The Americans contributed decisively to saving the city of Berlin: that is why we should make historic sites like the Brandenburg Gate available to them," he said.

Yesterday Ms Merkel's government appeared to be doing its utmost to back out of a embarrassing row. A government spokesman said that the Chancellor was expecting a "good and mutually acceptable solution" for Mr Obama's visit.

Americans at the Gate

*John F Kennedy 26 June 1963

Kennedy was the first US president to visit the gate, which had just become the front line in a divided city. The East German authorities put up red banners between the columns to prevent the President seeing into the East.

*Ronald Reagan 12 June 1987

Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall". The Soviet Union was already crumbling, and the wall came down two years later.

*Bill Clinton 12 July 1994

Unlike his predecessors, Bill Clinton was able to walk through the gate. He used the opportunity to reaffirm the permanence of the American military presence in Europe.

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