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What We Got Right in Iraq

By L. Paul Bremer
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Once conventional wisdom congeals, even facts can't shake it loose. These days, everyone "knows" that the Coalition Provisional Authority made two disastrous decisions at the beginning of the U.S. occupation of Iraq: to vengefully drive members of the Baath Party from public life and to recklessly disband the Iraqi army. The most recent example is former CIA chief George J. Tenet, whose new memoir pillories me for those decisions (even though I don't recall his ever objecting to either call during our numerous conversations in my 14 months leading the CPA). Similar charges are unquestioningly repeated in books and articles. Looking for a neat, simple explanation for our current problems in Iraq, pundits argue that these two steps alienated the formerly ruling Sunnis, created a pool of angry rebels-in-waiting and sparked the insurgency that's raging today. The conventional wisdom is as firm here as it gets. It's also dead wrong.

Like most Americans, I am disappointed by the difficulties the nation has encountered after our quick 2003 victory over Saddam Hussein. But the U.S.-led coalition was absolutely right to strip away the apparatus of a particularly odious tyranny. Hussein modeled his regime after Adolf Hitler's, which controlled the German people with two main instruments: the Nazi Party and the Reich's security services. We had no choice but to rid Iraq of the country's equivalent organizations to give it any chance at a brighter future.

Here's how the decisions were made. Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the head of the military's U.S. Central Command, outlawed the Baath Party on April 16, 2003. The day before I left for Iraq in May, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith presented me with a draft law that would purge top Baathists from the Iraqi government and told me that he planned to issue it immediately. Recognizing how important this step was, I asked Feith to hold off, among other reasons, so I could discuss it with Iraqi leaders and CPA advisers. A week later, after careful consultation, I issued this "de-Baathification" decree, as drafted by the Pentagon.

Our goal was to rid the Iraqi government of the small group of true believers at the top of the party, not to harass rank-and-file Sunnis. We were following in the footsteps of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in postwar Germany. Like the Nazi Party, the Baath Party ran all aspects of Iraqi life. Every Iraqi neighborhood had a party cell. Baathists recruited children to spy on their parents, just as the Nazis had. Hussein even required members of his dreaded intelligence services to read "Mein Kampf."

Although Hussein and his cronies had been in power three times as long as Hitler had, the CPA decree was much less far-reaching than Eisenhower's de-Nazification law, which affected all but the lowest-ranking former Nazis. By contrast, our Iraqi law affected only about 1 percent of Baath Party members. We knew that many had joined out of opportunism or fear, and they weren't our targets.

Eisenhower had barred Nazis not just from holding government jobs but "from positions of importance in quasi-public and private enterprises." The Iraqi law merely prohibited these top party officials from holding government positions, leaving them free to find jobs elsewhere -- even outside Iraq (provided they were not facing criminal charges). Finally, the de-Baathification decree let us make exceptions, and scores of Baathists remained in their posts.

Our critics (usually people who have never visited Iraq) often allege that the de-Baathification decision left Iraqi ministries without effective leadership. Not so. Virtually all the old Baathist ministers had fled before the decree was issued. But we were generally impressed with the senior civil servants left running the ministries, who in turn were delighted to be free of the party hacks who had long overseen them. The net result: We stripped away the tyrant's ardent backers but gave responsible Sunnis a chance to join in building a new Iraq.

The decree was not only judicious but also popular. Four days after I issued it, Hamid Bayati, a leading Shiite politician, told us that the Shiites were "jubilant" because they had feared that the United States planned to leave unrepentant Baathists in senior government and security positions -- what he called "Saddamism without Saddam." Opinion polls during the occupation period repeatedly showed that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis, including many Sunnis, supported de-Baathification.

We then turned over the implementation of this carefully focused policy to Iraq's politicians. I was wrong here. The Iraqi leaders, many of them resentful of the old Sunni regime, broadened the decree's impact far beyond our original design. That led to such unintended results as the firing of several thousand teachers for being Baath Party members. We eventually fixed those excesses, but I should have made implementation the job of a judicial body, not a political one.

Still, the underlying policy of removing top Baath officials from government was right and necessary. This decision is still supported by most Iraqis; witness the difficulties that Iraq's elected government has had in making even modest revisions to the decree.

The war's critics have also comprehensively misunderstood the "disbanding" of Hussein's army, arguing that we kicked away a vital pillar that kept the country stable and created a pool of unemployed, angry men ripe for rebellion. But this fails to reckon with the true nature of Hussein's killing machine and the situation on the ground.

It's somewhat surprising at this late date to have to remind people of the old army's reign of terror. In the 1980s, it waged a genocidal war against Iraq's minority Kurds, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and more than 5,000 people in a notorious chemical-weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq's majority Shiites rose up against Hussein, whose army machine-gunned hundreds of thousands of men, women and children and threw their corpses into mass graves. It's no wonder that Shiites and Kurds, who together make up more than 80 percent of Iraq's population, hated Hussein's military.

Moreover, any thought of using the old army was undercut by conditions on the ground. Before the 2003 war, the army had consisted of about 315,000 miserable draftees, almost all Shiite, serving under a largely Sunni officer corps of about 80,000. The Shiite conscripts were regularly brutalized and abused by their Sunni officers. When the draftees saw which way the war was going, they deserted and, like their officers, went back home. But before the soldiers left, they looted the army's bases right down to the foundations.

So by the time I arrived in Iraq, there was no Iraqi army to disband. Some in the U.S. military and the CIA's Baghdad station suggested that we try to recall Hussein's army. We refused, for overwhelming practical, political and military reasons.

For starters, the draftees were hardly going to return voluntarily to the army they so loathed; we would have had to send U.S. troops into Shiite villages to force them back at gunpoint. And even if we could have assembled a few all-Sunni units, the looting would have meant they'd have no gear or bases.

Moreover, the political consequences of recalling the army would have been catastrophic. Kurdish leaders made it clear to me that recalling Hussein-era forces would make their region secede, which would have triggered a civil war and tempted Turkey and Iran to invade Iraq to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Many Shiite leaders who were cooperating with the U.S.-led forces would have taken up arms against us if we'd called back the perpetrators of the southern killing fields of 1991.

Finally, neither the U.S.-led coalition nor the Iraqis could have relied on the allegiance of a recalled army. This lesson was driven home a year later, when the Marines unilaterally recalled a single brigade of Hussein's former army, without consulting with the Iraqi government or the CPA. This "Fallujah Brigade" quickly proved disloyal and had to be disbanded. Moreover, the Marines' action so rattled the Shiites and Kurds that it very nearly derailed the political process of returning sovereignty over the country to the Iraqi people -- further proof of the extreme danger of relying on Hussein's old army.

So, after full coordination within the U.S. government, including the military, I issued an order to build a new, all-volunteer army. Any member of the former army up to the rank of colonel was welcome to apply. By the time I left Iraq, more than 80 percent of the enlisted men and virtually all of the noncommissioned officers and officers in the new army were from the old army, as are most of the top officers today. We also started paying pensions to officers from the old army who could not join the new one -- stipends that the Iraqi government is still paying.

I'll admit that I've grown weary of being a punching bag over these decisions -- particularly from critics who've never spent time in Iraq, don't understand its complexities and can't explain what we should have done differently. These two sensible and moral calls did not create today's insurgency. Intelligence material we discovered after the war began showed that Hussein's security forces had long planned to wage such a revolt.

No doubt some members of the Baath Party and the old army have joined the insurgency. But they are not fighting because they weren't given a chance to earn a living. They're fighting because they want to topple a democratically elected government and reestablish a Baathist dictatorship. The true responsibility for today's bloodshed rests with these people and their al-Qaeda collaborators.

Lpaulbremer@gmail.com

L. Paul Bremer was presidential envoy to Iraq and administrator

of the Coalition Provisional Authority from May 2003 to June 2004.

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