Bremer: The system was not working

Man in charge of post-invasion Iraq restructuring speaks to Al Jazeera.

    Paul Bremer was appointed by George Bush, the US president, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority immediately after the invasion of the country by US-led forces, taking up his position on May 11, 2003, until June 2004 when limited sovereignty was restored.

    As part of Al Jazeera's special series War Without End

    , he told Hoda Abdel Hamid about the challenges he faced in trying to restructure Iraq's government institutions and infrastructure.


    In my very first meeting with president [George] Bush, which was on May 3 2003, he made it very clear that we were going to take our time to try to put Iraq on a long-term programme for political reconstruction and, of course, rebuild the economy.

    But the clear message was let's take our time and try to get it right in terms of political reconstruction.

    Two things were pretty quickly apparent. One was that we did not have adequate security even in Baghdad because the looting was going on virtually from the day I arrived.

    Within a week it became clear to me that we had a major problem that I had not anticipated which was how badly deformed the economy was, how much devastation Saddam had done to the economy.

    In focus

    Watch War Without End: 2003

    Special report: The Iraq invasion five years on

    That was something I think that we really were not prepared for.

    In my view, one of the more unfortunate aspects of having lawyers involved in the project was they determined that under international law, we became an occupying force and that was confirmed by the UN security council resolution.

    I used to say to the Iraqis it is also not very fun being an occupier, especially for an American; I always thought it was an unfortunate term.

    There was nothing I could do to change the noun, occupation. When Iraqis raised their concerns with me all I could do is sympathise and say "I understand you’re problem but there it is, it’s the international law."

    The political ramifications and psychological ramifications I think were in many ways more important because of the implication to the Iraqi’s that we were an occupying and not a liberating force.

    For many Iraqis they were delighted we had thrown out Saddam Hussein and his cronies. But they wake up the next day and hear that we’re occupying them and look out the door of their house and see Americans in tanks… I think it had an important, negative political ramification.

    I think it was the case that as we were unable to provide security for Iraqi citizens, that’s when the coalition became less and less popular.

    We could see in the opinion polls we did starting in September of 2003; there was a steady decline in the Iraqi view of the occupation as their concerns about security rose - you could see a direct relationship.

    Army issue

    By the time Baghdad fell, there was not a single unit of the Iraqi army standing in place anywhere. Basically the army had deserted.

    It is not surprising. It was mostly Shia conscripts who were treated very badly by their mostly Sunni officers and they just left, and the officers just went home.

    So the question that we faced when I got there, contrary to prewar planning, was what are we going to do? Are we going to recall the army, or are we going to build a new army?

    In discussion within the US government, including with the president and with Iraqis, it became very clear that we could not recall the old army. To do so would have been a political disaster.

    What we did then was two things. First of all, we said any conscript from the former army, is welcomed to enlist and come in; and any officer from the old army up to the level of Colonel will be welcomed to apply for a position in the new army.

    When I left 14 months later, 80 per cent of the enlisted men in the new army were from the old army and 100 per cent of the officers were form the old army.

    Government matters

    When I was briefed before I left for Iraq, there was a concept of quickly putting together an interim government while we worked on the longer term programme the president wanted us to have, to put in place a democracy.

    We talked first to a small group of exiles that our government had been talking to and I found that they were not representative of the Iraqi people.

    So working with the UN's secretary general special representative Sergio de Mello, my team of Arabic speaking experts basically fanned out across the whole country to find people who could be more representative of the Iraqi population.

    Bremer: Recalling the Iraqi army
    was not an option [AFP]

    The problem we had was this; if it was in our interest—and I thought it was—to get a group of Iraqis in front of the Iraqi people as an interim government and give them authority to act, since there was no way to hold elections.

    Since the group of exiles that my government had been talking to refused to broaden itself, there really was no alternative but for us to go out and try to find Iraqi lawyers, women, and doctors that would be willing to serve on the governing council.

    Inevitably, it was going to be seen to some degree as a creation of the occupation - again that awful word - that was inevitable. But frankly, nobody I know has come up with a better resolution to the situation we faced.

    I was not very keen on the programme of the governing council. We after all gave them authority; we said you organise yourselves and what they came up with was a rotating presidency; one every month, which is not a great way to run an organisation.

    The political problem was a lot of these people on the governing council, particularly the ones who had been abroad in exile, had a hard time making the jump form being in opposition, where your job is simply to criticise, to being a government where your job is to decide.

    That psychological problem stayed with the governing council for quite a while. They just had a very hard time making decisions.

    Constitutional matters

    A complication in the political process was that on the one hand, Iraqis told us that Iraq needed a new constitution; Saddam's constitution was a joke.

    The problem we ran into involved Ayatollah Sistani’s insistence that elections had to come first rather than last.

    So the run up to the hand over of sovereignty of 2004 was complicated by the need to figure out a way to get out of the box we found ourselves in.

    The way Iraq had been under Saddam, there was no way you could hold elections for two years, according to the UN.

    The solution was to move to an interim constitution and use that as a basis of appointing an interim government leading to elections.

    And that is how the process was resolved on November 15, 2003 with the agreement that we made with the governing council.

    One of the problems we had early on was we didn’t have offices in the provinces until September; we just didn’t have the people and we didn’t have the security in the provinces.

    It was one of our main objections to make sure the Sunnis were involved. And that is why I refused the idea that we should simply appoint the small group of exiles we had been dealing with, because the Sunnis were not represented.

    It was inevitable that the Sunnis would feel disenfranchised. They had been running the country for the better part of 1500 years, not just under Saddam.

    When you move to a democracy, the Sunnis who are probably 20-25per cent of the population were not going to be able to run the country anymore. That is a fact.

    So there was no way around that. And it was difficult for the Sunnis to accept that they were no longer going to run Iraq.

    Could we have done more? Of course, in retrospect you can always say that. I do not think it would have substantially affected the outcome.

    No effective strategy

    By September of 2003, when insurgency was beginning to bubble up, I raised my concerns that there was a tendency of the military not to conduct effective counter-insurgency operations.

    We were not conducting an effective counter-insurgency strategy which involves providing long term security for the citizens.

    One of my regrets was not talking more about the lack of a military strategy. I thought we didn't have enough troops.

    But I am not a military man and it would be difficult for the president to overrule his military who consistently told him he did have enough where I'm just a diplomat and I thought there wasn't enough.

    I raised my concerns about the number of detainees we had as early as July 2003. We were just sweeping up people. We didn't know who we had. I couldn't release people.

    The investigation of Abu Ghraib was the only one I was directly informed of. I was involved in it because it was military. I heard in my time only one other complaint about detainee conditions.

    We didn't have an adequate system of sifting through the detainees. The system in my view was not working.


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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