German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder apologized in a letter to President Bush Friday for the offense caused by reports that his justice minister had compared Bush's methods to Hitler's.
Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin earlier denied a report in a regional newspaper that she told a pre-election gathering that, by threatening to attack Iraq, Bush wanted to distract from his domestic political problems, as Hitler had.
Schroeder told Bush: "I want to let you know how much I regret the fact that alleged comments by the German justice minister have given an impression that has offended you."
He said he had accepted Daeubler-Gmelin's denial and added, according to a German text provided by his office:
"Let me assure you that there is no place at my cabinet table for anyone who makes a connection between the American president and such a criminal."
Bush's spokesman said Friday the minister's reported comments were "outrageous and inexplicable," noting the newspaper had stood by its story and that witnesses agreed.
The reported remarks by Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin have led to calls for her resignation just two days before national elections.
The regional newspaper the Schwaebisches Tagblatt reported Thursday that Daeubler-Gmelin, while speaking about U.S. threats toward Iraq, told a small group of labor members: "Bush wants to distract attention from his domestic problems. That's a popular method. Even Hitler did that."
Any mention of Nazis in German politics courts controversy. Three weeks ago Schroeder demanded an apology after his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, was reported to have said the SPD's parliamentary president was "the worst ... since Hermann Goering."
Schroeder, who has recently sparred with Washington over his outspoken opposition to war against Iraq, said he could not imagine Daeubler-Gmelin had meant to liken Mr. Bush to Hitler.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described the reported statement as "outrageous and inexplicable."
Asked about the U.S. reaction to the reported comments, Schroeder adviser Franz Muentefering said, "I'm surprised at the speed with which the reaction came. Perhaps it would have been better to speak to Herta Daeubler-Gmelin first."
"I have spoken to her and she stresses that she didn't say it," Muentefering told ZDF television. "She feels that she has been abused and distorted."
Muentefering is the general secretary of Schroeder's Social Democratic Party.
On Thursday, the minister called the portrayal of her comments as "far-fetched and slanderous."
The chief editor of the Schwaebisches Tagblatt said Friday he stood by the remarks as reported, insisting that several witnesses had confirmed Daeubler-Gmelin's choice of words.
The editor, Christoph Mueller, also said his reporter had checked the wording with Daeubler-Gmelin herself when she telephoned to clarify her remarks.
Justice Ministry spokesman Thomas Weber confirmed that the minister had been in touch with the newspaper, but disputed its version of events.
He said Daeubler-Gmelin had called U.S. Ambassador Dan Coats Friday morning and "made it clear that these reports have no basis."
Germany's role in a war on Iraq — and its standing as one of America's key European allies — has become a point of contention between Schroeder and his conservative challenger, Edmund Stoiber, in their neck-and-neck election race.
With more than two-thirds of German opposed to any involvement in a new Middle East war, Schroeder pulled slightly ahead of his challenger going into Sunday's vote with his outspoken opposition to a war to oust Saddam Hussein.