* Three opposition parties fail to block sale
* Govt holds firm, says Saudi Arabia key to regional peace
By Eric Kelsey and Sabine Siebold
BERLIN, July 8 German Chancellor Angela Merkel's
conservatives on Friday thwarted a parliamentary manoeuvre by
the opposition that would have halted a secret multi-billion
euro tank deal with Saudi Arabia.
The vote just before parliament's summer recess was seen as
test of the chancellor's control over her coalition.
The government has faced sharp criticism from opposition
lawmakers and even within its own ranks after media reports --
confirmed to Reuters by Saudi security sources -- said Berlin
had agreed to sell 200 Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia.
Opponents say the deal contravenes the country's export
guidelines for military hardware and the tanks could be used to
suppress human rights and bolster the ruling royal family in the
world's largest oil exporter.
"They are failing a historic situation (in the Middle
East)," opposition Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel told
parliament. "Germany and Europe must support the democratic
movement and not feudal dynasties."
The Germany government cannot acknowledge the deal because
exports of military equipment are confidential and disclosure is
punishable by a fine or jail.
"Confidentiality protects Germany's relations with potential
trade partners and their interests," Merkel spokesman Steffen
Seibert said before the vote.
Germany's three opposition parties -- the Social
Democrats, Greens and Left party -- each put forward bills that
would have prevented tanks from being exported to Saudi Arabia
and, in effect, forcing the government to officially disclose
Selling armaments abroad is a sensitive issue in Germany due
to its Nazi past, as well as the role arms makers such as Krupp
played in feeding 19th and 20th century wars with exports to
both sides of conflicts.
Germany has imposed strict rules on arms exporters, barring
them from selling weapons to countries in crisis zones, with
questionable human rights records or engaged in armed conflicts.
"It's known that we have differences over human rights with
Saudi Arabia -- that's very clear," Seibert said. "Even so, they
play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process."
Without addressing the tank deal explicitly, the government
has said arms exports to Saudi Arabia help strengthen the Gulf
country as a counterweight to Iran in the region.
Media reports also said Israel and the United States were
briefed on the deal and voiced no concerns.
"Two hundred tanks for Saudi Arabia has no effect on
Israel's security interests," former Israeli ambassador to
Germany Shimon Stein told German paper Rheinische Post in a
preview of its Saturday edition.
The 2A7+ Leopard tanks said to comprise the Saudi orders are
made by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall and
viewed as among the most effective battle tanks in the world.
In spite of self-imposed restrictions, Germany's arms
exports have doubled in the last decade and the country is now
the world's third-largest weapons exporter behind the United
States and Russia.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)