BONN — AS the world expresses outrage at the German contribution to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's war machine, the government here is again set to strengthen export control laws. There is also a growing interest among government officials and lawmakers in Bonn to push for uniform, European Community-wide controls on illegal weapons exports. It is of little use having strict laws in Germany, they argue, if German exports find their way into regions of tension via other countries in the EC.
German economics minister J"urgen M"ollemann laid out a series of proposals last week to strengthen export control laws. He also announced that Germany had investigated a list of about 110 companies that may have broken the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq.
Of the total, he said, nine warranted further investigation and would probably go to court. Reportedly, one of the nine companies helped with the development of biological weapons and one helped increase the range of Iraq's Soviet-made Scud missiles. The list was supplied by the United States and Britain.
The proposals for stepped up controls include stiffer punishment for violators of the trade embargo against Iraq and for violators of the export laws in general. The reach of the legal net would be enlarged so that any involvement with illegal weapons projects would fall under the law even if the particular product exported was not on the list of forbidden exports.
Mr. M"ollemann also wants again to increase the number of people who review export licenses. As of April, Germany's customs offices will be linked by a computer network that can more quickly identify and trace potentially illegal exports.
Since the start of 1989, when German companies were found to have helped build a poison gas plant in Libya, Germany has strengthened export laws five times. The Germans say they have some of the strictest laws against arms exports in the world.
``On paper, they are one of the best,'' agrees a Western diplomat here who has been closely following the issue.
Since Rabta, the Germans have taken the illegal weapons exports issue much more seriously, the diplomat adds. And since Aug. 2, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, ``I am flabbergasted at how good and quick they've become'' at investigating cases.
However, the diplomat says, ``the question always is how well they carry out'' the laws.
This is a crucial question for Israel, which is under threat of chemical-weapon attack from Iraq. At the moment, six Germans are being investigated by the state prosecutor's office in Darmstadt for having allegedly helped Iraq build poison gas plants. German companies, along with other companies in Europe, Brazil, and the US, are also suspected of contributing to Iraq's drive to build an atomic bomb. When the German foreign minister and other politicians visited Israel last week, they were met by loud protests against German ``merchants of death.''
``I share this outrage, the bitterness over this, and in my eyes Germans committed a severe crime in helping produce Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons,'' Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher said in an interview after his return from Israel.
Even if the six cases related to the Iraqi gas plants make it to court, the new, stiffer laws and penalties won't apply to them because the alleged violations predate the new laws, says Georg Nauth, spokesman for the Darmstadt prosecution.
``It's going to look bad,'' comments the diplomat. The old laws, he says, ``are nothing more than a slap on the wrist.''
The Germans give several reasons why, despite new countermeasures, their export controls are not air-tight. False export declarations, the export of dual-use products and parts, and export through third countries are all circumstances which customs officials can't control, says Mr. Nauth.
The Germans also say they aren't the only contributors to Iraq's military strength. France, for instance, supplied Mirage fighter jets and Exocet missiles.
Momentum is growing in the German government for EC-wide regulations to curb the illegal arms trade. Several other ideas are also circulating. The opposition Social Democrats suggest that German arms exports be limited to NATO countries. There is also cross-party support for adapting a list of banned exports by the Coordinating Committee on Export Controls to cover the Middle East. The committee was established in the West to target high technology being shipped illegally to Eastern Europe.