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WIESBADEN, Germany — The German Ministry of Defense will dispatch at least 2,600 troops to U.S. military communities over the next couple of weeks, a deployment that could begin as early as Friday, a ministry spokesman said Thursday.

Corresponding with the U.S. military buildup in the Middle East, the German troops would provide security and other force protection measures in the event of war with Iraq.

The spokesman said the first contingent, numbering nearly 300, represents the vanguard of a larger force that would assume responsibility for force protection at dozens of U.S. installations between now and mid-February.

While the German government wants U.N. weapons inspectors to have more time to continue their work in Iraq, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has said his nation would safeguard U.S. bases and personnel if war breaks out in Iraq.

“Our chancellor has said we will support you in several tasks, especially in the vigilance of protecting U.S. Army barracks,” said the spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The spokesman did not immediately know if German troops would also be dispatched to U.S. Air Force bases.

While the troop commitment could well surpass 2,600, the spokesman said some estimates in the German press are too high. One recent article stated that about 7,000 German troops would be sent to about 95 locations.

German troops fulfilled a similar roll in the aftermath of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. About 800 German soldiers were sent to help guard dozens of U.S. installations from October 2001 to February 2002.

Since then, Army National Guard units from the United States have deployed to Germany to beef up security at U.S. bases and to give the active-duty force a break from guard duty. A task force led by the Pennsylvania National Guard is in the process of redeploying back to the United States after a six-month stint in Europe.

Based on earlier assurances from the German government, the United States brought up the issue this past fall when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with his German counterpart, Peter Struck, in Washington.

U.S. Army Europe and German military officials hashed out the details in meetings held in December and early January, said Elke Herberger, a USAREUR spokeswoman.

“The plan is to have them [all in place] by Feb. 17,” Herberger said.

German troops could begin pulling guard duty and going out on patrol as recently as Friday in a couple of communities, Herberger confirmed. That timeline might get pushed back a day or two as some last-minute issues are worked out, such as access to military dining halls and exchanges.

“The Bundeswehr is on standby” to deploy, Herberger said.

Officials are also working on how best to incorporate private security guards into the force protection picture.

Some U.S. military communities are already preparing to receive the German troops. The issue was a topic of discussion at town hall meetings Wednesday in Wiesbaden and Würzburg.

In Wiesbaden, about 170 German soldiers are expected to provide security at a few locations, such as the Army airfield. That’s roughly twice the number of guardsmen allocated to Wiesbaden last year.

Lt. Col. Dennis Slagter, commander of the 221st Base Support Battalion for the Wiesbaden community, said the Army had planned to deploy a National Guard unit from Puerto Rico when the decision was made to ask the Germans for assistance.

“This relieves the Army from having to send another National Guard task force,” Slagter said.

As Slagter understands it, German troops will be completely responsible for the installations they end up protecting.

“They say, ‘How can we provide good security if we don’t have 100 percent control?’” Slagter said.

In Würzburg, Lt. Col. Scott St. Cyr, commander of the 101st Military Intelligence Battalion, told a town hall meeting at Leighton Barracks that a combination of U.S. and German soldiers will replace the Pennsylvania Guardsmen who have been manning the posts since August.

“Don’t be alarmed if you see some German uniforms,” he said.

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