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German expellees leader raises pressure on Merkel

FRANKFURT, Nov 17 (Reuters) - German conservative politician Erika Steinbach on Tuesday reaffirmed her desire to head a new World War Two museum, raising the pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to settle a major dispute within her coalition.

Steinbach, head of the League of Expellees and a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), has been a driving force behind the museum, which will depict the plight of Germans and other groups forced out of eastern Europe after the war.

But Steinbach is deeply unpopular in Poland for forcefully pushing the interests of expellees and has created divisions in Merkel's government, which took power only last month.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the Free Democrats (FDP) is opposed to giving her a seat on the board of the museum because it could damage relations with Warsaw and has vowed to veto her appointment, which the cabinet must approve.

But Steinbach has the backing of CDU members and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), whose leader Horst Seehofer has warned Westerwelle to back down or risk seriously harming relations within the coalition.

On Tuesday, the League backed Steinbach for the job and she called a news conference in Frankfurt, pressing the government to support her too.

"The coalition needs to sit down and decide what it wants," Steinbach said.

The issue is shaping up as Merkel's first real test as head of the new centre-right government.

Merkel's cabinet began a two-day meeting north of Berlin on Tuesday to resolve divisive policy issues and the museum nomination now threatens to overshadow the gathering.

The German chancellor has avoided taking sides on the issue, concerned about hurting ties with Poland but also fearful of a backlash from members of her own party.

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan, Writing by Sarah Marsh, editing by Paul Casciato)

www.reuters.com © Thomson Reuters 2009, 17. Nov 2009,

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