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Wolfowitz Concedes Iraq Errors

By Peter Slevin and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 24, 2003; Page A01

The deputy secretary of defense said yesterday that some key assumptions underlying the U.S. occupation of Iraq were wrong, tacitly acknowledging the judgment of current and former U.S. officials critical of the occupation planning.

Paul D. Wolfowitz, briefing reporters after a 41/2-day trip to Iraq, said that in postwar planning, defense officials made three assumptions that "turned out to underestimate the problem," beginning with the belief that removing Saddam Hussein from power would also remove the threat posed by his Baath Party. In addition, they erred in assuming that significant numbers of Iraqi army units, and large numbers of Iraqi police, would quickly join the U.S. military and its civilian partners in rebuilding Iraq, he said.


Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, right, attends a meeting on postwar Iraq. Garner, who headed the reconstruction effort, said his staff spent a lot of time planning for humanitarian crises. (Tim Sloan -- AFP Pool Photo)

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But Wolfowitz, who traveled to southern, central and northern Iraq, reported that the south and north are "impressively stable" and said that throughout the country, "we are making a great deal of progress."

His acknowledgment that some assumptions were wrong faintly echoed one of the primary complaints registered by many current and former U.S. officials since before the occupation began. The reconstruction effort, they said, was also undermined by unresolved logistical problems and secretive decision-making by the Defense Department civilians who led the planning. The planning, they said, was also poorly coordinated by the White House.

In recent interviews, Pentagon leaders acknowledged some setbacks in Iraq, but said that assessment does not recognize considerable progress or account for the inherent unpredictability of the most ambitious U.S. effort to remake a country since the reconstruction of Germany and Japan in the 1940s.

"There's been a lot of talk that there was no plan," Wolfowitz said yesterday. "There was a plan, but as any military officer can tell you, no plan survives first contact with reality."

Three months after Hussein's government evaporated, 150,000 U.S. troops are enduring dozens of armed attacks in Iraq each week. The bureaucracy remains dysfunctional. A governing council of 25 Iraqis began sharing limited power with U.S. authorities there only last week.

The U.S. occupation, now costing $4 billion a month, has no clear end. And an assessment by outside experts commissioned by the Pentagon warned last week that the window of opportunity for postwar success is closing.

Officials critical of the occupation planning said some problems could have been predicted -- or were, to no avail, by experts inside and outside the Pentagon.

Before the invasion, for example, U.S. intelligence agencies were persistent and unified in warning the Defense Department that Iraqis would resort to "armed opposition" after the war was over. The Army's chief of staff warned that a larger stability force would be needed.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his team disagreed, confident that Iraqi military and police units would help secure a welcoming nation.

The State Department and other agencies spent many months and millions of dollars drafting strategies on issues ranging from a postwar legal code to oil policy. But after President Bush granted authority over reconstruction to the Pentagon, the Defense Department all but ignored State and its working groups.

And once Baghdad fell, the military held its postwar team out of Iraq for nearly two weeks for security reasons, and then did not provide such basics as telephones, vehicles and interpreters for the understaffed operation to run a traumatized country of 24 million.

"People always say that sometimes people plan for the wrong war," said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former head of the State Department's policy planning office. "One can say in some ways that the administration planned for the wrong peace. In particular, there was an emphasis on preparing for a humanitarian crisis when in fact the larger challenges turned out to be political and security."


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