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Popular German minister quits in plagiarism controversy

Defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the most popular member of Angela Merkel¿s cabinet, resigns as his doctorial thesis is shown to be riddled with work from uncredited sources.

BERLIN // The German defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, quit yesterday after admitting to copying part of a doctoral dissertation, seeking to end a scandal that has shaken Angela Merkel's conservative government.

Mr zu Guttenberg was the most popular member of Chancellor Merkel's cabinet, and his loss is considered to be a severe blow to her party as she prepares to fight regional state elections this month.

"I was always ready to fight but I've reached the limit of my powers," Mr zu Guttenberg, 39, told journalists in a hastily arranged news briefing at the defence ministry in Berlin.

"I'm not only leaving because of my error-filled doctorate, although I can understand this would be reason enough for many in the academic community. "The reason is because of the question whether I can still live up to the highest expectations I put on myself," he said.

Mr zu Guttenberg was stripped of his doctorate after admitting last week that his dissertation was flawed. However, he has not admitted to plagiarism.

Ms Merkel had not wavered in her backing for him. Opposition leaders said she feared that firing him would cost her support among conservative voters, especially in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, a conservative bastion that polls suggest her party may lose this month.

Mr u Guttenberg "is someone of outstanding political ability, with a unique and extraordinary ability to reach people's hearts and get them interested in politics," Mrs Merkel told reporters after the resignation. "I am convinced that he will have the strength needed to clear up issues to do with his dissertation. I am convinced that we will have the opportunity to work together again in the future, in whatever form that may take."

Mr Merkel, whose party suffered a crushing defeat on February 20 at the first of 2011's seven regional elections, had stood by her vote-winning defence minister, saying earlier she "didn't appoint him as a research assistant."

One survey last week even indicated that his popularity had increased since the plagiarism scandal blew up on February 16, with a thumping 73 per cent of those questioned happy with his performance.

Mr zu Guttenberg became the most popular figure in Mrs Merkel's cabinet since bursting on the scene in 2009, impressing first as economy minister and then at defence and boosting support for Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrat

Party rallies before Mrs Merkel's re-election in late 2009 saw the nobleman from Franconia feted like a pop star. He was even touted as a possible successor to Mr Merkel, 56, at the helm of Europe's biggest economy.

Political scientist Gero Neugebauer told AFP: "This is a big loss for Angela Merkel. She is losing an important election campaigner. Nobody else can excite the same level of interest and excitement."

But Mr zu Guttenberg was never a massive hit with the media, the mass-circulation Bild being a notable exception, and newspapers gleefully went on the attack when the accusations that he had ripped off others' work first emerged.

The plagiarism row broke after a law professor close to the opposition went through Mr zu Gutenberg's doctoral thesis, and then snowballed as more and more passages were found to be suspect.

Mr Zu Guttenberg, who can trace his family back to the 12th century, whose full name is Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester, Freiherr (baron) von und zu Guttenberg. and whose wife is a direct descendant of the 19th century "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck, was ridiculed as "Baron Cut-And-Paste" and "Zu Googleberg".

His alma mater, Bayreuth University, withdrew his doctor title last week, with university president Ruediger Bormann saying the thesis was "not the result of correct scientific work".

Law professor Oliver Lepsius, who succeeded Mr zu Guttenberg's doctoral supervisor at Bayreuth, told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily on Saturday: "We have been taken for a ride by a fraudster,"

But Mrs Merkel is the "real loser" in this affair, political consultant Michael Spreng said.