The former U.S. official who governed Iraq after the invasion said yesterday that the United States made two major mistakes: not deploying enough troops in Iraq and then not containing the violence and looting immediately after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, administrator for the U.S.-led occupation government until the handover of political power on June 28, said he still supports the decision to intervene in Iraq but said a lack of adequate forces hampered the occupation and efforts to end the looting early on.
The Post's Robin Wright talks about former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer's recent comments on U.S. troop strengths in Iraq.
"We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," he said yesterday in a speech at an insurance conference in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. "We never had enough troops on the ground."
Bremer's comments were striking because they echoed contentions of many administration critics, including Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, who argue that the U.S. government failed to plan adequately to maintain security in Iraq after the invasion. Bremer has generally defended the U.S. approach in Iraq but in recent weeks has begun to criticize the administration for tactical and policy shortfalls.
In a Sept. 17 speech at DePauw University, Bremer said he frequently raised the issue within the administration and "should have been even more insistent" when his advice was spurned because the situation in Iraq might be different today. "The single most important change -- the one thing that would have improved the situation -- would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout" the occupation, Bremer said, according to the Banner-Graphic in Greencastle, Ind.
A Bremer aide said that his speeches were intended for private audiences and were supposed to have been off the record. Yesterday, however, excerpts of his remarks -- given at the Greenbrier resort at an annual meeting sponsored by the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers -- were distributed in a news release by the conference organizers.
In a statement late last night, Bremer stressed that he fully supports the administration's plan for training Iraqi security forces as well as its overall strategy for Iraq.
"I believe that we currently have sufficient troop levels in Iraq," he said in an e-mailed statement. He said all references in recent speeches to troop levels related to the situation when he arrived in Baghdad in May 2003 -- "and when I believed we needed either more coalition troops or Iraqi security forces to address the looting."
He said that, to address the problem, the occupation government developed a plan that is still in place under the new interim Iraqi government.
Bremer also said he believes winning the war in Iraq is an "integral part of fighting this war on terror." He added that he "strongly supports" President Bush's reelection.
The argument over whether the United States committed enough troops to the mission in Iraq began even before the March 2003 invasion.
Prior to the war, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, said publicly that he thought the invasion plan lacked sufficient manpower, and he was slapped down by the Pentagon's civilian leadership for saying so. During the war, concerns about troop strength expressed by retired generals also provoked angry denunciations by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In April 2003, for example, Rumsfeld commented, "People were saying that the plan was terrible and there weren't enough people and . . . there were going to be, you know, tens of thousands of casualties, and it was going to take forever." After Baghdad fell, Rumsfeld dismissed reports of widespread looting and chaos as "untidy" signs of newfound freedom that were exaggerated by the media. Rumsfeld and Bush resisted calls for more troops, saying that what was going on in Iraq was not a war but simply the desperate actions of Baathist loyalists.
In yesterday's speech, Bremer told the insurance agents that U.S. plans for the postwar period erred in projecting what would happen after Hussein's demise, focusing on preparing for humanitarian relief and widespread refugee problems rather than a bloody insurgency now being waged by at least four well-armed factions.
"There was planning, but planning for a situation that didn't arise," he said.
A senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said yesterday that Bremer never asked for more troops when he was the administrator in Iraq -- except for two weeks before he left, when he requested forces to help secure Iraq's borders.
Bremer said in his speech that the administration was clearly right to invade Iraq. Though no weapons of mass destruction have been found, he said, the United States faced "the real possibility" that Hussein would someday give such weapons to terrorists.
"The status quo was simply untenable," he said. "I am more than ever convinced that regime change was the right thing to do."