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American Viceroy, ca. 2003

From Frontline, “The Lost Year in Iraq"—or, How Iraq Today Came to Be:

[Frontline] Where does the CPA Order No. 1 come from, the de-Baathification decree? What was the thinking? How did it evolve? Did you come with it in mind?

[L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer] The concept behind the de-Baathification decree was that the Baath Party had been one of the primary instruments of Saddam’s control and tyranny over the Iraqi people for decades. Saddam Hussein himself openly acknowledged that he modeled the Baath Party on the Nazi Party because he admired the way in which Hitler was able to use the Nazi Party to control the German people. Just as in our occupation of Germany we had passed what were called “de-Nazification decrees” and prosecuted senior Nazi officials, the model for the de-Baathification was to look back at that de-Nazification.

The decree itself I saw actually the day before I left for Baghdad. It was shown to me. I guess it had been being worked [on] in the Pentagon. I don’t know all the details of who looked at it, ... but the lawyers and everybody had been at it. I suggested that the decree not be issued right away, that it be held until I got to Baghdad so that I could [get] a sense of what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.

Now, in his freedom message in April, before I got there, the Baath Party had already been outlawed by [then-CENTCOM Commander] Gen. [Tommy] Franks. So the question then was, what do we do about officials in the Baath Party? ...

[Frontline] Garner sees it and takes it to the CIA station chief or whatever, and they come roaring into you. Do you remember that?

[Bremer] No, I don’t remember hearing from them. I knew that the agency estimated—and I double-checked it after I got there—that it would affect about 1 percent of the Baath Party members, [roughly 20,000] people.

[Frontline] You don’t remember these guys coming in and saying, “Thirty thousand to 50,000 people—my God, what are you doing?”

[Bremer] It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I was working 20 hours a day in that period as well, and this wasn’t the only thing on my list of things to do the first five days I was there. I had a lot of other things to do.

[Frontline] But this is a big one, right?

[Bremer] There were a lot of big things that first five days. There were a lot of big things the first 48 hours. I don’t say it didn’t happen. I knew there were concerns. I knew the agency made the assessment that there were about 20,000 people to be thrown out of work, and I judged in the end that that was a risk that we were willing to take. ...

He may have come in and spoken to me at great length about it. I just don’t remember it, honestly don’t remember it. But I was under no illusions it was going to be difficult. I’m not trying to dust off his concerns; I’m just saying I don’t remember the meeting.

[Frontline] Did you feel like you were rolling the dice a little bit, though? I mean, it kind of intuitively makes sense that you don’t want to let too many of them go. You want infrastructure.

[Bremer] I had to keep my eye on the broader strategic picture here, too, which was that we had sent an American Army halfway around the world to throw out this hated regime. American men and women had lost their lives in that process. The Iraqi people had a promise of a better life from this process of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and the promise of better government.

In my view, one had to weigh the potential negative consequences of some people being unhappy against the broader goals and what we were trying to accomplish in Iraq. To me, it was the right thing to do.

It was, in historical terms, compared to de-Nazification in Germany on which it was modeled, much, much milder than what we did in Germany.

[Frontline] Just so that I understand, was or wasn’t this your plan?

[Bremer] No, it wasn’t my plan. It was a plan that had been discussed and worked on, I suppose, with some intensity in the government. As I said, I was shown this draft decree the day before I left, so it was well-developed long before I was even in the government.

I might add one thing on this de-Baathification, which is important to remember: The State Department, a year before the war, had called together a group of Iraqi exiles to talk about what a post-Saddam Iraq would look like. The resulting study, which was a 2,000-to-3,000-page study called the Future of Iraq Project, was all over the lot in terms of what postwar Iraq should look like, except on one subject: De-Baathification absolutely had to happen; the senior members of the Baath Party had to be got rid of, and the Baath ideology should be got rid of.

The impetus for this was not some idea that sprung full blown from somebody’s head in the United States government. This was based on the recommendation of Iraqis who were in exile….

The implementation is where I went wrong. I knew that we, the foreigners—whether it was Americans or British or Australians or Romanians or Poles—we were going to have a hard time making the kind of fine distinctions that de-Baathification policy required. Did [a person] join the party because he was a real believer, or did he join it because he wanted to be a teacher, and to be a teacher you had to join the party? I said: “We’re not going to be able to make those distinctions. I need to turn it over to Iraqis.”

[Frontline] The decision to undo the Iraq army and the police, where does that come from?

[Bremer] First of all, there’s a difference between the army and the police, and it’s an interesting difference. In the case of the police, we asked the police to come back on duty. They had left. The looting going on in Baghdad was, to some degree, because there were no police on duty in the city. So we called the police back, and we tried to basically rebuild the police. That was a different approach than the approach dealing with Saddam’s army….

Recalling [the army] had both political and practical problems, [a] practical problem being that more than 300,000 of the enlisted men were basically Shi’a draftees. They had gone home. They went back to their homes and their villages, their farms. They hated the army because they were brutalized and hazed by their mostly Sunni officers. Recalling them would have meant, in effect, sending American soldiers into the Shi’a homes and villages and farms and forcing them at gunpoint back into an army they hated.

The political problem was that because the army had been instrumental in genocide against the 20 percent of the [population who were] Kurds and killing fields against the 60 percent [of the population], of the Shi’a, to recall the army would have been a clear signal to Iraqi people that while we got rid of one terrible man, Saddam Hussein, we were prepared to see the Sunni elite come back in the form of the officer corps.

Therefore, the recommendation that I made to my government was that we not do that, that we effectively build a new army from the ground up, always allowing that anybody from the old army who wanted to come and apply for enlisted men in the new army was able to do that. Anybody in the officer corps up to the level of colonel was able to apply for those positions. So that’s what we did….

Many military people we’ve talked to said [they were] stunned, shocked, amazed that a, they hadn’t been consulted, so they remember; and b, that this fundamentally cuts away the force that they were hoping to rely on. ... Garner says: “I had a lot of guys lined up who were ready to come back to work on the 15th of May. ... Bremer wouldn’t even listen to me about this; that this was really, of all the things, the most fundamental error the guy made during that time.”

I think the decision not to recall Saddam’s army, from a political point of view, is the single most important, correct decision that we made in the 14 months we were there….

The army was the central instrument of Saddam’s repression of the Kurds and the Shi’a. The Kurdish leaders had made it very clear to me that if we recalled the army, they would secede from Iraq, which would have started an immediate regional war. …

Whatever calculations various colonels and majors made about how they could get these people to come back or not come back, the political argument against recalling the army was decisive.

We have now built a new army, and the new army, which was built from the bottom up—although it contains a majority of people from the old army now—[was] readily trained by the United States. The new army has been relatively reliable. We recalled the police, ... and we’ve had nothing but trouble with the police since then.

I think … that the fact the we decided to rebuild the army from the bottom up, using people from the old army but rebuild[ing] it from the bottom up, has proven to be politically, and from a security point of view, the right thing to do. ...

[Frontline] When you make a decision like that, or issue Order No. 1, how much is Rumsfeld involved in that? Is it back and forth between the two of you?

[Bremer] Yes. We were talking daily at this point, certainly through the rest of May. I arrived on May 12. We were talking basically daily for weeks after I arrived there, about a whole variety of things. We’d each have a long agenda with de-Baathification, the army, almost anything you imagine.



Paul Bremer reviewing new Iraqi soldiers. This picture really captures the whole feel of the American occupation for the first year or so.

Frontline included shot after shot of his wrists and his feet, which you can see above: French cuffs and combat boots. That’s a great photo.

My favorite lines, above:

He [Jay Garner] may have come in and spoken to me at great length about it [the consequences of de-Baathification]. I just don’t remember it, honestly don’t remember it. But I was under no illusions it was going to be difficult. I’m not trying to dust off his concerns; I’m just saying I don’t remember the meeting.

And, immediately after defending his order to disband the Iraqi army,

We have now built a new army, and the new army, which was built from the bottom up—although it contains a majority of people from the old army now….