Mistakes Loom Large as Handover Nears
"We should have brought them back and vetted them over time instead of saying, 'We don't want you,' " a senior U.S. military officer in Baghdad said.
Bremer said that the army fell apart after Hussein's defeat and that it was not practical to order units back into service. And as with the police, there were questions about the loyalty and competence of the soldiers.
Another major mistake, Iraqi and U.S. officials said, was the failure to provide enough equipment to the police and the Civil Defense Corps, a 40,000-member paramilitary force. At the Rafidain station, only half the 140 officers have handguns. There are only 10 AK-47 assault rifles in the armory, three pickup trucks in the parking lot and two radios in the control room. Body armor is nonexistent, save for a few U.S. military vests worn by guards at the front door.
"How can we defend ourselves if we don't have guns and radios and cars?" said Maj. Raed Kadhim, the senior officer at the station. "The Americans promised us all of these things. Where are they?"
The sympathy for Sadr today at the Rafidain station -- on Fridays, officers pin his picture to their uniforms before going to the mosque -- suggests that the odds of getting the police to resist the cleric's militia have not improved. The scope of the confrontation could have been smaller, according to several CPA officials, had U.S. forces moved against Sadr in August, when an Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant for him. Instead, they allowed him months to build support for his anti-occupation views.
By April, with the CPA's internal polling showing 80 percent of Iraqis holding positive views of Sadr, the CPA should have sought a political solution, the officials contend. At the very least, they argue, CPA strategists and military commanders should have realized that many Iraqi security officers would side with the cleric.
"The Americans misunderstood us," Kadhim said. "We will fight for Iraq. We will not fight for them."
From the start of the occupation, the American effort to transform Iraq's political system was challenged by another Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a cleric far more established than Sadr. The CPA's inability to deal with him forced a series of compromises that will affect Iraq long after Bremer departs.
Sistani is a man in his seventies with a snowy beard who has lived in isolation for the past six years in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. With millions of followers, he is seen as the most influential leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, a man whom Shiite politicians do not want to cross.
Sistani's position was straightforward: Iraqis, not Americans, should determine the country's political future. In June 2003, he issued a religious edict calling for Iraq's constitution to be written by elected representatives -- a demand that was in direct conflict with the Bush administration's political transition plan.
Bremer and his staff initially underestimated the influence of his edict, assuming that Shiite political leaders would be able to persuade Sistani to change his position. It was not until November that Bremer concluded there was no way to sway Sistani -- whom Bremer has never met -- and that the Bush administration's plan to have a group of appointed Iraqis write a constitution would have to be scrapped.
After hurried meetings at the White House, Bremer unveiled a new transition plan on Nov. 15 that abandoned the goal of a permanent constitution and general elections before a handover of sovereignty. Instead, the Iraqi Governing Council, the 25-member body picked by Bremer, was assigned to produce a temporary constitution. An interim government would be selected through caucuses.
Nobody bothered to run the details by Sistani first. He objected a few days later, forcing another series of changes and leading President Bush to ask U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to select the interim government. In the end, Bremer did not get the president he wanted: His favored candidate, Adnan Pachachi, withdrew after Shiite politicians threatened not to work with him, prompting Brahimi to choose Ghazi Yawar, a tribal sheik with no experience in government before serving on the Governing Council.
Sistani also objected to the temporary constitution. Ethnic Kurds, who had been living in an autonomous region since 1991, had insisted on a clause that would protect their rights with veto power over the language in a permanent constitution. But because Shiites are about 60 percent of Iraq's population and Kurds make up only 20 percent, Sistani was concerned that a minority not be allowed to overrule the wishes of the majority.
Bremer did not want to budge. If the provision were expunged, the Kurds would bolt. He persuaded Shiite members of the Governing Council to sign the interim constitution, leaving Sistani's basic objections unaddressed.
Then, earlier this month, the Bush administration proposed having the U.N. Security Council include an endorsement of the interim constitution in a resolution on Iraq's future. Sistani quickly issued a statement: The interim constitution, he said, "was written by a nonelected council under occupation" and is "rejected by the majority of the Iraqi people."
But when the administration expunged the reference to the interim constitution, Kurdish leaders were incensed. Iraq's top two Kurdish officials sent a letter to Bush threatening to pull out of the interim government formed earlier this month.
The dispute means Shiites and Kurds will have to hash out their differences on their own. Among the options Shiite leaders favor is dispensing with the interim constitution and writing a new version, a potentially embarrassing outcome for the administration, which has held up the document as one of the CPA's most significant achievements.
Iraqi leaders and foreign diplomats fault the CPA for not grasping Sistani's clout soon enough. Senior CPA officials said Bremer did recognize Sistani's power, but the problem was communicating with the cleric: Because Sistani refused to meet anyone from the CPA, messages were conveyed by Shiite politicians who skewed statements to suit their interests.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company