BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's foreign minister has raised the possibility of sending military assistance to the Iraqi government, saying he would discuss further steps with European partners following a dramatic push by Islamic State militants through northern Iraq.
His comments, along with similar statements from two other ministers, marked a shift in tone from the German government which on Monday said it did not send arms to conflict zones. In the last few months Berlin has announced a more restrictive policy on arms exports and a more muscular foreign policy.
"Humanitarian aid for everyone that needs protection is a matter of course ... but we must look whether we can and must do more," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily.
Germany is a reluctant partner in international military missions due to its Nazi past.
Islamic State insurgents - radical Islamists who have proclaimed a 'caliphate' straddling parts of Iraq and Syria - have swept across northern Iraq, pushing back Kurdish regional forces and driving tens of thousands of minority Yazidis and Christians from their homes.
"This is preparation for a genocide," said Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel after meeting representatives of the Yazidi people in Berlin.
Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani asked the international community on Sunday to provide the Kurds with weapons to help fight the Islamic State.
"In light of the dramatic situation, I favour going to the limits of what is politically and legally possible," said Steinmeier, a member of the Social Democrats (SPD) who share power with conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He said he wanted a united approach from the European Union which would coordinate with the United States. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said Washington will consider requests for military and other assistance once prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi forms a government to unite Iraq.
Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a conservative, said non-lethal military equipment could include armoured vehicles or booby trap detectors, helmets and protective vests. The Iraqi government would be the recipient, she said.
Interviewed by German public broadcaster ARD, von der Leyen said despite a principle not to deliver weapons to conflict and crisis regions: "If we actually see and fear a genocide that no one can stop, then we also have to have the debate in Germany whether we can do more."
Norbert Roettgen, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag lower house of parliament, told newspaper Die Welt that delivering weapons would violate the government's arms export guidelines.
"Departing from those would constitute a radical change in German foreign policy which cannot simply be decided by the government without involving parliament," he was quoted as saying.
On Monday, Merkel's spokesman had stressed that Germany did not send arms to conflict zones. "This is a principle we feel committed to upholding," he said.
(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold; Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Howard Goller)