Berlin: German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg quit on Tuesday after admitting to copying part of a doctoral dissertation, seeking to end a scandal that has shaken Angela Merkel`s conservative government.
Guttenberg was the most popular member of Chancellor Merkel`s cabinet, and his loss is a severe blow to her party as she prepares to fight three regional state elections this month.
"I was always ready to fight but I`ve reached the limit of my powers," Guttenberg, 39, told journalists in a hastily arranged news briefing at the Defense Ministry in Berlin.
"I informed the chancellor in a very friendly conversation that I`m resigning from political offices and requested to be relieved. It`s the most painful step of my life.
"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."
Guttenberg had been accused of copying parts of the dissertation without correct attribution, and was stripped of his doctorate after admitting last week that his dissertation was flawed, although he has not admitted to plagiarism.
The affair has dominated headlines and television chat shows for the last week.
Merkel had not wavered in her backing for Guttenberg. Opposition leaders said she feared that firing him would cost her support among conservative voters, especially in the southwesterly state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, a conservative bastion that polls suggest her party may lose this month.
"It`s bad for Merkel and she stuck with him far too long," said Konrad Jarausch, a political scientist at Berlin`s Free University. "It`s a major about-face for her. There will be some damage to her too over this."
Guttenberg has long been the most popular minister in Merkel`s cabinet. But the aristocrat`s popularity was based on his carefully nurtured image for honesty and integrity. German media have found scores of copied passages in his dissertation.
He said he had made mistakes, but not deliberately.
In recent days, Education Minister Annette Schavan had called Guttenberg`s actions shameful, and parliamentary speaker Norbert Lammert said they were "a nail in the coffin for confidence in democracy."
Merkel had been eager to avoid any turbulence ahead of the state elections and two summit meetings in Brussels, where European Union leaders are expected to agree to raise the size and scope of the euro zone bailout fund.
The center-left opposition has accused Merkel of taking a tough position on a euro zone bailout fund that is expected to be agreed at a summit on March 24-25 because of the state elections.
Any perceived relaxation of debt terms for euro zone stragglers is likely to meet public opposition in Germany.