updated 4/7/2006 10:43:46 AM ET 2006-04-07T14:43:46

Parliament established a committee Friday to investigate contentious claims that German intelligence agents helped in the war in Iraq by passing secret information to the U.S. military ahead of the 2003 invasion.

The committee convened Friday afternoon, shortly after lawmakers voted in a broad majority for it to be set up.

“All of us here have a long and difficult task to perform,” committee chairman Siegfried Kauder, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, told the other 10 members of the panel at their first meeting.

The three main opposition parties — the Free Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party — had called for the investigation after a series of reports claimed that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service passed along critical information about Saddam Hussein’s plans to defend Baghdad against American forces before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Together, the three parties have 166 seats in the 614-seat Bundestag lower house; 154 votes were needed to convene an investigatory commission.

The committee, which was to meet later Friday, will consist of 11 members and be led by Gerda Hasselfeldt, a member of the conservative Bavaria-only Christian Social Union.

Besides investigating the foreign service’s role in pre-war Baghdad, the committee will seek to clarify whether the government had information regarding possible CIA rendition flights over Germany, including stopovers at the U.S. Air Force’s Ramstein Air Base in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

What did government know of detention?
The committee also will investigate what the government knew about the arrest of Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese origin who claims he was wrongfully detained by Macedonian authorities while on a trip to Skopje and taken to a U.S.-run detention center in Afghanistan.

The government previously has acknowledged that German intelligence agents gave limited information on Iraqi forces to U.S. authorities before or during the invasion, despite vigorous opposition against the war by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

However, it denied that the intelligence service ever had a copy of the alleged Baghdad defense plan and said that U.S. authorities have stonewalled a request for information about al-Masri.

The government has said it has a list of more than 400 overflights and landings by planes suspected of being used by the CIA, but indicated it doesn’t know who was on board.

Germany sided with France and Russia to oppose the war in Iraq, and Schroeder insisted his country would provide no active support for the U.S.-led operation. That stance helped him win a narrow re-election victory in 2002 but damaged relations with Washington that are still being repaired.

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