Germans fear exit signs of soldiers heading eastward

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The Independent Online

At the Mexico Lindo cantina in the west German city of Mainz, Leo Ramirez has been providing Mexican American food to US army customers for the past eight years.

Desperado tequila beer is served by the bucket, menus are in German and English and he accepts payments in dollars to meet the demands of his predominantly American customers, the soldiers from the US army's 1st Armoured Division's European headquarters in neighbouring Wiesbaden.

This week, the stars and stripes was still flying at the Wiesbaden base. But nearly all of the unit's 17,000 troops were gone.

The division's soldiers were in Iraq and locals such as Leo Ramirez have good reason to fear they are not coming back. Their departure is thought to be the prologue to an almost total withdrawal of American forces from Germany. Senior US military officials have indicated that after 60 years, the division, which first arrived in Germany in 1943, will not be returning to Wiesbaden.

Romanian officials in regular contact with the US military said they were told that 15,000 Americans would be withdrawn from Germany in the foreseeable future as part of a redeployment of forces to Bulgaria and Romania. The move, according to Pentagon officials, has been fuelled by American annoyance over "Old Europe's" opposition to the war in Iraq and the need to shift US military bases further east to meet the political and strategic challenges that have arisen since the end of the Cold War.

A senior US military official said: "You have to have troops near ports and airfields that are closer to the action and you also want to have them in a place where people agree with what you are doing.

"Why do we need a joint force in Germany, where there is nothing happening?"

American soldiers have been in Germany for more than 50 years. About 70,000 of the US military's 112,000 troops in Europe are currently based in the country. More than 20,000 German civilians are employed by the US military.

German officials from the state of Hessen, where many troops, including the 1st Armoured Division, are based are dismayed. Rainer Kling, a spokesman for the Hesse government told The Independent: "It will have a serious effect on the economy. We are naturally very concerned that this is the result of central government's opposition to the war in Iraq, but there is little we can do about it."

At 1st Armoured Division HQ, Major Scott Slayton, the unit's press spokesman, was equally fraught. "We have had no official confirmation that a withdrawal from Germany is imminent," he said.

"But many of the soldiers' dependants are worried that they will have to pack up and leave."

Analysts believe that a total American military withdrawal would devastate the economy. The country is already suffering from record postwar unemployment predicted to hit the 5 million mark by the end of this year.

One study concluded that 2.5 German jobs resulted from every 10 American soldiers stationed in the country.