German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has left for the United States in an effort to mend bilateral ties that were badly strained over Germany's fierce opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. One of the main items on Mr. Fischer's agenda is a U.S. request for European countries to play a bigger role in stabilizing Iraq.

Last week U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he would welcome help from Washington's NATO partners, including France and Germany, the most vocal critics of the war, in restoring order to Iraq. The request came amid growing dismay over almost daily attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq

France's response was that it will only send soldiers to the war-torn country if they are part of a United Nations peacekeeping force. Germany's response was a little more nuanced, with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder telling a German television network that Berlin would join the pacification effort if there were a clear U.N. mandate or if there were a request by an interim Iraqi government or the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate last week called on President Bush to consider requesting the deployment of NATO forces to Iraq. But the issue of whether the alliance should formally participate in the stabilization effort there is still a divisive one, and French and German diplomats say their countries would vote against a NATO mission if there were no U.N. mandate.

U.S. diplomats also say calling on NATO to get involved in Iraq is premature because it could lead to a crisis like the one earlier this year which saw France, Germany and Belgium block a NATO plan to bolster Turkey's defenses in the run-up to the Iraq war. The three nations argued that such a move amounted to implicit acceptance that conflict was inevitable.

Mr. Fischer will travel from New York to Washington on Tuesday for a series of meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as members of the U.S. Congress.

When the German foreign minister last traveled to Washington in October, a month after Chancellor Schroeder won re-election on an anti-war platform that infuriated the White House, Mr. Powell was the only administration official to meet with him.

German and U.S. diplomats say their countries are making efforts to reconstruct their working relationship. Germany supported an American move to lift U.N. sanctions against Iraq last May. And although Berlin may be reluctant to commit troops to Iraq under present circumstances, it has said it is prepared to extend the mandate of its 4,600 troops in Afghanistan until the end of next year, and even deploy them outside the capital, Kabul, to aid reconstruction efforts

Mr. Fischer is likely to tell his hosts that with German soldiers' involvement in peacekeeping and security missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Horn of Africa, his country's armed forces are too over-stretched to consider going into Iraq at this time. But German diplomats insist that their country is not shutting the door to an eventual involvement - if the conditions laid out by Mr. Schroeder can be met.