L. Paul 'Jerry' Bremer served as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004. In this wide-ranging interview, he addresses the major events and policies of his tenure, including: turf wars in Washington; his controversial orders on de-Baathification and disbanding the Iraqi army -- decisions which some argue fueled the burgeoning insurgency; his repeated requests for additional U.S. troops on the ground; his disagreements with the military; his request to halt the April 2004 Fallujah offensive; his problems with Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi army; and the final handover of sovereignty to Iraqis. Though he admits 'disappointing results' in providing security, Bremer disagrees with the categorization of the CPA's tenure as a 'lost year': '[O]n the whole, the American people can say we did a noble thing,' he tells FRONTLINE. '… We put the Iraqis on the right path, politically, to a better political future, and they now have got, certainly, the right plans to rebuild their economy. All that remains now is to effect a security strategy that defeats the Sunni insurgency.'
Some Highlights From This Interview
His directive from President Bush
His first glimpse of Baghdad -- fires and looting
Why disbanding the army was his 'single most important, correct decision'
Disagreements with the military's strategy and tactics for the insurgency
Why it wasn't a 'lost year'
His exit from Baghdad
This is an edited transcript drawn from two interviews conducted on June 26 and Aug. 18, 2006.
Tell me the story of how you get this job.
I was contacted by two people -- Paul Wolfowitz, who is deputy secretary of defense, and Scooter Libby, who was the vice president's chief of staff, both of whom I'd known for decades -- who asked if I would be interested in being considered to go over and run the Coalition Provisional Authority [CPA]. I said, 'Well, I've got to talk to my wife,' who managed to restrain her enthusiasm at this prospect, I have to say, but in the end agreed. …
Off the top, what things were you concerned about when you got the job?
I had two concerns which I raised in my early meetings before I went to Baghdad. The first was that I felt this was going to be a difficult and long, time-consuming job. I told the president that it would be more in the line of a marathon than a sprint, that this was going to be hard. Not that I knew that much about Iraq -- I didn't. But I'm a historian; I had studied postwar conflict, post-conflict situations, so I knew it was going to take time.
I needed to be sure that whatever responsibility I had was aligned with the authority. It's very important not to have a lot of responsibility and not enough authority. Those were my two main concerns.
You talked with the president about all of this?
Yes, I did. The most important conversation I had was at a one-on-one luncheon that he invited me to about 10 days before I went to Baghdad. I had not met the president before. He was very open, and we discussed quite a lot -- China and the Middle East and so forth. I found him very well informed. There was no detail missing.
But then we got to Iraq, and I basically said, 'I'm going to need some help.' He said, 'How can I help you?' I said: 'Two ways. Number one, we're going to need time to make this happen. It's going to be really tough.' … And he said very clearly, 'I'll give you whatever time you need. I'm not going to be dissuaded by the polls or by the pundits or by the election cycle,' because this was, of course, in May of 2003, so about a year and a half before he would have been up for re-election. I said, 'I need to be sure I have adequate authority to carry out the job you're giving me.' … And he said: 'Don't worry. I understand that. We'll fix that.'
You didn't need to take this job. Why did you do it?
Well, I had been involved in the war on terrorism for more than 20 years, from my time in the State Department and from my former position as chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism. I had served on the president's Homeland Security Advisory Council. I had been on a number of other commissions.
I was deeply concerned about terrorism and homeland security and felt that it was important that we had defeated Saddam Hussein who, as far as we knew, was [the head of] a state which supported terrorism. He had been so identified by administrations of both of our political parties, and I felt that the idea of bringing decent government to the Iraqi people was a good thing.
I came at it with a combination of basically a realistic view of the importance to American security … and a more general view that bringing democracy to countries in the Middle East, particularly an important country like Iraq, was in America's interest.
I thought it was going to be tough. It turned out to be a lot tougher job than I thought it was going to be.
In getting up to speed on Iraq, who was helping you? What were you learning?
I was based in the Defense Department, and they arranged a whole series of briefings by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, the State Department, the Department of Treasury, Department of Justice -- a whole series of briefings and briefing papers that were given to me to read.
In general, I was learning about what was the situation as it appeared before the war and as we expected it to be. Since I'm a historian, I was also at night trying to read more about the history of Mesopotamia and Iraq, because although I had lived in this region before -- I lived in Afghanistan for two years -- I had not lived in Iraq. Iraq was not that familiar to me, except in a general way of the history of Mesopotamia. … It was a bit of a kaleidoscope. There were only two and a half weeks there, so it was pretty intense. …
Did you wonder why the mission would reside, at least in some ways, in the Defense Department and not the State Department?
Not really. It seemed to me logical. The last time we had occupied a country was in Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War. In both cases, the occupation was run by the War Department, as the Defense Department was then called.
In fact, there's a strong argument for [why] it is exactly the right place for this kind of a process to be, because this kind of a project, an occupation, involves very intense coordination between the political and military chain of command, if you will. In the American system, the only place, short of the president of the United States, where the civilian and military chain of command can come together is with the secretary of defense. If you put the coalition into the State Department, you are exacerbating what are already always difficulties of coordination. …
[Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, when you talked to him before you go, does he have a road map, a plan? What does he articulate to you as the mission?
Well, they had done thinking about this in the Pentagon, obviously. They had papers which described, … for example, what should we do about senior Baath Party officials. They had papers and prepared documents on these kinds of things.
I was briefed as well by the military side, as I mentioned, on their plans and what they hoped to accomplish in terms of the American force levels in Iraq. I don't remember all the details, but there were certainly a lot of papers around; that's for sure. …
Much has been made, of course, of the fact that before the war, there was very little postwar planning -- or, it was an optimistic postwar planning.
The answer is somewhat complicated when one thinks about the prewar planning. The prewar planning was based on assumptions about the kinds of problems that the U.S. government expected to find in Iraq after liberation. The planning, as it turns out, was based on the wrong assumptions. …
In some ways, even more importantly, the information that we had about the state of the Iraqi economy was not good. The economy was in much worse shape than I had been led to believe. … Saddam had taken one of the richest countries in the Middle East and driven it into the ground over a period of 25 years. … I'm not even sure, if the assumptions on the planning had been better, [if] we would have still had a plan that would have helped us, because the fundamental situation of the economy was so much worse than we thought.
How would you characterize what Rumsfeld was telling you to do? …
The direction that all of us followed was from the president, and his direction was quite clear: that we were going to try to set the Iraqis on a path to democratic government and help them rebuild their country.
Now, none of us at that time [knew] -- certainly I didn't know -- what that would entail. The general guidance I had from the president and others was, 'Get over there and give us your recommendation.'
Less than three weeks after I had been in Iraq, the president asked me to come to a meeting with him in Qatar in the Gulf, where I was already beginning to be able to give him a general sense of the situation, in particular how bad the economy was.
Did you know you were going to find yourself sort of betwixt and between with the military, whose inclination was to reduce forces as quickly as possible? ...
No. The problems, the tensions with the military inclination to want to cut down quickly and the president's guidance, 'Let's do this right' -- those tensions didn't become apparent to me, really, until September of 2003.
What brought them to the fore was the preparations that by September the military had to start to do for the first big rotation of American units. It was going to come up after everybody had been on the ground a year, so the rotations were going to start in February, March and April of 2004. It was when they started worrying about those rotations that some of these problems really started to come up.
Tell me about your team at the CPA.
I inherited most of the people who were working for me. They had deployed with [head of Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA)] Gen. [Jay] Garner to Kuwait before the war and then had come up to Baghdad right after liberation in April. I think there were about 400 or 500 on his staff. Then I hired maybe a half dozen people to be my personal staff before I went down.
And who were they?
I asked a friend who had been my deputy twice before in the State Department named Ambassador [Clayton] McManaway, who also had served for five years in Vietnam, and knew a lot about the military/civilian component of this kind of operation. He came and was my deputy.
I asked probably the State Department's most senior and respected area expert, Arabist Ambassador Hugh Horan, who had just retired but was willing to come out of retirement, [to] be, in effect, my senior adviser on the Arabic side of it. I hired a friend who had been my executive assistant twice before in the State Department to come run my office. Then the military nominated a couple of military aides to come work with me, and I took them with me. So it was a mix.
What do you see when you first get there?
We flew on a C-130 into Baghdad on May 12. ... The thing that was striking to us as we flew into Baghdad was that a lot of the buildings were on fire. This was the looting that had started almost with the fall of Saddam's statue. It was to me a rather striking thing to see, both from the air and then driving into town, these buildings on fire and looting going on.
When did you know it was a big problem?
I knew it was a big problem the night I got there. I raised the question of the looting at my first staff meeting and said I thought the fact that we were not stopping the looting meant we were not carrying out one of the fundamental roles of any government, which is to provide law and order for its citizens. We were the government of Iraq under international law, and to me it was right from the start clear that this was something you needed to take some steps against.
What did you do?
I did one thing that wasn't very smart, which was suggest to the staff meeting that I thought our military should have authority to shoot the looters, which they did not have at that time. I pointed out that when we had faced a similar kind of a problem of looting in Haiti in the mid-1990s, our forces had shot some looters, and that was the end of the looting.
This wasn't very smart to do, because somebody on the staff immediately told the press that I had suggested shooting the looters, and we had a problem.
More practically, I suggested to Secretary Rumsfeld and [CENTCOM Commander] Gen. [John] Abizaid that we ought to take a look at the rules of engagement that our forces have. What this military calls the 'rules of engagement' are basically their orders, and the military rightly pointed out, 'We don't have orders to shoot unarmed civilians, even if they're stealing something.' I asked Gen. Abizaid if he could send us some more American MPs [military police] to try to bring some order to Baghdad.
People tend to forget that before the war, Saddam had opened up all of his prisons and let all the prisoners out, some of whom were probably political prisoners. But we estimated somewhere between 100,000 to 120,000 prisoners had been let loose, many of them convicted murderers, rapists, arsonists.
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?
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? ...
Garner sees it and takes it to the CIA station chief or whatever, and they come roaring into you. Do you remember that?
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.
You don't remember these guys coming in and saying, 'Thirty thousand to 50,000 people -- my God, what are you doing?'
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.
But this is a big one, right?
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.
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.
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.
Just so that I understand, was or wasn't this your plan?
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. ...
How do you feel about [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi?
Chalabi is a complex figure, very smart, extremely articulate, very media-wise, savvy in how to use the media, and one of the very few Iraqis whom I met in my time there, in government or outside, who actually understands a modern economy and what it took to open Iraq's economy. He was very helpful in a number of the major economic steps we took while we were there.
But he's obviously controversial. He has a reputation for being a bit slippery. He's been accused of crimes in other countries and in Iraq and so forth and so on. I found that on the economic stuff, he was very helpful to us.
Many people point a finger at you and say you gave Chalabi de-Baathification. ...
Well, I didn't give it to Chalabi. I did make a mistake. The de-Baathification policy was the right policy -- absolutely satisfied with that. It was based very much like the de-Nazification after World War II, because the Baath Party, as Saddam himself said publicly and often, was modeled on the Nazi Party, including having children spies. …
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.'
The mistake I made was turning it over to the Governing Council. I should have turned it over instead to a judicial body of some kind. The Governing Council, in turn, turned it over to Chalabi. I did not turn it over to Chalabi. It is true that once the Governing Council took it over, they started interpreting the policy, implementing the policy much more broadly, and we had to walk the cat back in the spring of 2004. ...
The decision to undo the Iraq army and the police, where does that come from?
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. ...
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?
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.
Was he as impatient with you as he was with Franks and others?
He's a good friend. He's a tough man. No, we spoke frankly and in a friendly way at all times. He's a tough boss, but I knew that before I took the job. ...
Help me understand Garner's situation in this. What were you told about why you were going to Baghdad?
I don't know that anybody ever put into one sentence what the program was, but the sense I got was that the administration wanted Jay there because Jay Garner had done such a good job at the humanitarian relief after the first  Gulf War in the [Kurdish area in the] north. Again, the prewar assumption was that we would face similar kinds of humanitarian problems, on a much larger scale, after the war of liberation. As it turns out, that assumption was wrong.
There was first a question as to whether the kind of person you wanted there was no longer relevant. Secondly, it was suggested that they wanted somebody with more political and diplomatic background. But I don't think anybody ever said in one sentence, 'Here's the reason why we're replacing Jay.' ...
Gen. Garner, when we interviewed him, says his goal was to push the Iraqis toward an interim government, elections and a constitution quickly. What was Washington's problem? ..
My impressions from my meetings in Washington in early May, and very clearly from a meeting at the NSC [National Security Council], was that we were to take our time and put the Iraqis on a path to democracy, and that this would take time. We were not to rush to a point in interim government.
To my surprise, I think it was on May 6 or May 7 -- I can't remember exactly when -- I heard early one morning as I was driving to the Pentagon on the 6:00 news that Gen. Garner had announced that the following week he was going to appoint an interim government, which sort of astonished me, because it was clearly not the guidance that I had been getting. ...
The people that Gen. Garner [were] talking to at that point was basically a very small, unrepresentative group of Iraqis, exiles, except for the two Kurdish leaders. The Sunnis were not well-represented. There were no women; there were no Christians; there were no Turkomen. It was not a representative group. So I, frankly, was surprised.
What did it tell you about Garner and about Washington?
Well, I didn't know Gen. Garner at that point. I had spoken to him a couple of times on the phone. I didn't meet him until we got to Baghdad. It suggested to me there was some disconnect somewhere along the way, and I didn't know what it was. But I was clear on what my guidance was. ...
How flawed was ORHA? What happened?
The problem, I think, that ORHA had was that they were asked to plan for contingencies that did not, in fact, eventuate at the end of the war. That's not their fault. The assumptions were that ORHA would face large-scale refugee movements, humanitarian disasters, sabotage on the oil wells. ORHA was set up to deal with those contingencies on the basis of those assumptions. That was the first problem.
The second problem that ORHA had was it did not get very much cooperation from the interagency framework back in Washington up until the war started, because until the war started, any agency in Washington could say: 'Well, come back and talk to me when it becomes real. I don't want to get involved in all this planning.' Even though ORHA had been established in January, it was not staffed adequately up to and during the war.
It seems to me those were two very difficult structural problems, and Gen. Garner did his best under extremely trying circumstances, to try to cope with the situation he found when he finally did get to Iraq. ...
Was the Dobbins report, the RAND study, important?
Yes, it was important. About a week before I went to Baghdad, Jim Dobbins came to me with a draft study he had done of, I think, six or seven previous post-conflict situations, including Germany and Japan after the Second World War, and then the Balkans and Afghanistan, ... Somalia.
RAND had arrived at a metric on how many soldiers in relation to the population of the country you're going into -- what is the proper ratio to ensure that you get security? The long and the short of it was that their metric suggested that in Iraq, a country of some 27 million, we would need something like 450,000 to 500,000 coalition forces on the ground for security. At that time, we had about 200,000.
I respect RAND. I've worked with them for decades, so I didn't have any reason to question their methodology. The draft report suggested to me that we didn't have enough troops.
And what did you do with that report?
I took the summary of it and sent it up to Secretary Rumsfeld, and I said, 'I think this is worth taking a look at.' Again, I didn't know. All I had to go on was I knew how many troops we had; I knew we were planning to draw them down; and I had a study from RAND which suggested that not only should we not draw them down, but we may need more. I sent it to Rumsfeld, and I mentioned it to the president.
I don't know what Rumsfeld may have done with it. He probably shared it with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would be my guess. That's the way he normally treated those kinds of documents. What they did with it, I don't know. They all along maintained that they had enough forces, at least to me. I never heard them ask for more troops, so they probably just said, 'Well, that's a study of different countries, and it's different in Iraq.'
Did you ever again raise it with him yourself, with Rumsfeld?
I don't remember talking to him about the RAND study again specifically. ...
Did you ever in NSC meetings, or either for or around the president or [then-National Security Adviser] Condi Rice, ask for more troops?
I did, a number of times, talk about the need for more troops. Now again, it's important to make a couple of points. First of all, I'm not a military expert, and I don't hold myself out to be a military expert. I'm a diplomat and a historian, so I gave one view.
The consistent view in all of the meetings I was in with all of the generals who were in Iraq, the generals who were in CENTCOM forward headquarters at Doha, [Qatar], in Tampa, [Fla.], at the NSC meetings, and all these meetings, the consistent view was they had enough troops. I never heard them ask for more troops.
If you're the secretary of defense or the president, you have this guy on the ground saying, 'I think we need more troops'; you've got all these military experts saying, 'We've got enough troops.' ...
When the RAND report moved to the president, did he ever talk to you about it?
I just mentioned it to him at my farewell luncheon. He just said, 'Well, we're trying to get more troops,' as indeed they were. They were trying to broaden the coalition -- it wasn't a question necessarily of American troops. It could have been other countries'.
Around late spring, early summer of 2003, nobody knows there's an insurgency yet. Something's building out there maybe. However, the military in the early going was thinking about getting out of there as best we can. How soon did you know that was the case?
The earliest indication I had that some of this military planning was, in my view, unrealistic was the first briefing I got from the Joint Chiefs of Staff before I left. It suggested that we were going to take the American troop levels, which were at about 170,000 maybe when I got there, … down to 60,000 by September 2003, so within three or four months, which already struck me as somewhat unrealistic.
That number then sort of disappeared from their planning. But when the insurgency began to become really apparent in late October through late November, this coincided with this time when the military had to plan their troop rotation in the spring. At that point, it began to look to me, and particularly some of my colleagues, as if the military was hoping to be able to conduct this significant drawdown in the spring of 2004 so they wouldn't have to replace all the 15 brigades.
The debate got deflected off of the number of U.S. troops onto the question of the quality of Iraqi forces we were training. That became a very big discussion between me and the Pentagon during the fall of 2003. ...
Here was the situation in the fall of 2003, in my interpretation. The thing was turning out to be a lot harder than the prewar planning had assumed. People had thought we'd be able to get our military out there quickly. They thought we'd be able to hand over the political power immediately to some of the exiles, who turned out to be very unpopular. The reconstruction was proving to be a lot more difficult. Instead of costing a couple of billion dollars, we were, by September, asking for $20 billion from the American taxpayer.
First of all, the military, looking down six months ahead, said: 'We can't bring another 15 brigades in here. It's going to hurt us and take too much money,' and so forth and so on. And the policy side of the Pentagon was saying: 'The best way to cut all of this short is simply to hand over power to some Iraqis. Find us some Iraqis; give them authority. We'll end the occupation. We'll get out of here.'
There was the view on the part of some of those people that 'ending the occupation' would be a kind of a magic bullet that would solve all our political problems. And here I must say both Gen. Abizaid, who was at that time CENTCOM commander, and I said: 'Look, there's no magic bullet. As long as we've got troops here, we will look like an occupying power, whether under international law we're called an occupying power or not.' I felt strongly that it would be a mistake to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis without giving them a path to democracy, without giving them some kind of a timeline, some kind of a way to get from where they were to an elected democratic government. …
Throughout the summer of 2003, ... my sense is that there was a still an unwillingness to acknowledge that things were not in the best of shape. I recall Rumsfeld not wanting to use the word 'insurgency' or 'guerrilla war.' Did you know you were in a war?
Yes. If you said, 'By what date?,' it would be hard to say. There were three signal events. One was the discovery of an [Iraqi] intelligence services prewar document that laid out a plan for the insurgency. It basically told the people in Saddam's intelligence services what to do. I first saw it, I think, toward the end of July.
Then in August, we had three large terrorist attacks: the Jordanian Embassy, the smaller one; the attack on the U.N. mission; and the attack on the people in the holy city of Najaf the end of August. Those three things clearly suggested a new order of magnitude of violence. I mean, we had certainly been losing soldiers and we'd been having some problems, but nothing on that scale.
By September, it certainly felt like we were into a more difficult problem with the insurgents. [They were] more resilient than we had thought, and more difficult.
I've seen videotape of you after the U.N. mission was bombed. You look blown away. What happened?
It was a very emotional situation for everybody involved. I had become very close to Sergio [Vieira] de Mello, who was U.N.'s secretary-general [special] representative there. He and I had worked closely together on a variety of economic and particularly political matters. I had become very fond of him. Obviously they used a very large bomb, which he survived initially, which made it in some ways even more difficult, because he was alive toward the end.
I wound up doing these television interviews at the site itself, which was chaotic, and there were still people crawling over the rubble trying to find survivors. ... It was very a very difficult period, and really a shocking scene.
There is all this talk about how you and [Commander of U.S. forces in Iraq Lt.] Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez didn't have the best of relationships. How would you describe your relationship with Gen. Sanchez?
I don't know where that story comes from, and neither does Gen. Sanchez. I've talked to him about these stories that have come out about how we had a difficult relationship, and neither of us knows where it's coming from. It certainly didn't come from me. He says it didn't come from him. ...
I considered him to be a thoroughly professional military officer, patriot. We obviously saw things from time to time through different eyes, as you would expect. He's a military man; I had political responsibilities. That's inevitable. But our relationship was never strained by anything more than kind of different professional way of looking at things. I don't know where these stories came from. ...
What [were] those points of disagreement?
I guess there were two problems that I had with military command: one tactical, one strategic. The tactical problem was a tendency on the part of the commanders, in the fall of 2003, as the insurgency was really beginning to pick up, to overestimate the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, particularly the Iraqi police, and to hope and state that we would be able to substantially reduce the American troop presence in the spring of 2004 because Iraqi police would be prepared to take our place. I felt that was unrealistic. It would take longer to get a professional police force. Unfortunately, when the uprising happened in April of 2004, I was proven right on that. They had a lot of trouble with the police.
The strategic problem that I had was I felt that, particularly again, in the period of September/October 2003, the military was not showing any high-operational tempo in the operations they were running against the insurgents. ... I felt a lack of a real strategy to defeat this burgeoning insurgency, the Sunni insurgency that was coming up at that point. That was [what] the strategic problem was: Did we have a real strategy to defeat the insurgency? Then the other question was, how do you assess the Iraqi security forces?
We had these disagreements. This was not something that we didn't discuss; we just looked at it differently.
Did you discuss it with each other or discuss it with Rumsfeld?
Both. I discussed it with Gen. Abizaid, Gen. Sanchez. We had many discussions with the secretary of defense. The subject came up at some NSC meetings as well.
What would they tell you?
I should say my conclusion was we needed to retain a very substantial American troop presence until we had defeated the insurgency, and, in fact, that we probably needed more troops to do that.
The military response to that was to say: 'Look, if we had more troops here, it will make the occupation more offensive to the Iraqi people. They'll see more soldiers sitting in Bradleys and on tanks.' I just disagreed with that. ... We had started opinion polling in September of '03 [which] showed that the thing the Iraqis wanted most from us was security. That was what they wanted, and it was my top priority. ...
In this period in September, when the pressure was rising on the military side to find some way to substitute Iraqi forces, on the political side of the Pentagon there was this idea of simply handing over sovereignty immediately to the Governing Council or to somebody. My experience with the Governing Council at this point suggested this would not be a great idea. I mean, this is a group which for leadership, elected nine presidents out of 25 people. This already gives you a sense that this isn't going to be very smooth.
I told [then-Deputy] Secretary [of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz, who was pushing this idea [of] just handing sovereignty over, I didn't think the Governing Council was up to this; they couldn't organize a two-car parade. They were simply not able to make decisions in a timely fashion, or any decisions.
Moreover, I still felt very strongly about the importance of getting a constitution in place before we handed sovereignty to anybody. ...
Is it unfair to assume that some of the impetus by the National Security Council and the White House here is because they're facing an election year coming up, and this isn't looking any better?
I don't know what the National Security Council felt. I know what the president felt, which was the opposite. He was very, very clear to me. Indeed, in an NSC meeting, he was very clear, because this subject came up about a month later, at the end of October, when I was back in Washington. ...
There basically were two possible paths in front of us. One was, 'Quickly turn over sovereignty some time in the next couple of months.' The other was, 'Let's find a way to get some kind of an elected government, based on some kind of a constitution, in place.' In particular, I emphasized getting a constitution in place.
The president was very clear. He said, 'We're going to do what's right, irrespective of the election coming up next year, because we've got to do what's right for the Iraqi people.' ... He couldn't have been clearer. ...
Talk a little bit about the Nov. 15 agreement, the result of much of your work.
We wanted to give the Iraqis a clear path to decent government, which meant, as the Iraqis understood, that they needed to have a constitution. They hadn't had a decent constitution for 80 years. The idea had been that we'd get a constitution, then hold elections based on that constitution and get out.
The problem was, we had Grand Ayatollah [Ali al-]Sistani, the head of the Shi'a sector, saying that, 'No, if you're going to have a constitution, we have to have people who are elected to [write] the constitution.' Well, you get into ... if you have elections, on what basis do you hold the elections if you don't have a constitution on which to hold the elections?
So we find that we in the Iraqi Governing Council needed a way forward, and the way forward was to say, 'Let's get an interim constitution that then allows us to hand over sovereign[ty].' This Nov. 15 agreement essentially codified the plan going forward. It said the Iraqis will write an interim constitution by a date fixed, March 1. We will have a new interim government in place by June 1, and we will give full sovereignty back to that interim government by June 30, 2004.
The importance of that agreement was that it got us out of a dead end that we and the Iraqis were in. It gave us a way forward, which we then followed every step of the way.
You had from the beginning, at least as I read it, realized that it's going to take a lot longer certainly than the military wanted.
Yes. The problem with holding elections in Iraq was, first of all, there hadn't been an accurate census in almost half a century. The last accurate census was in 1957, and to hold elections, you have to have some idea of what the constituency base is.
There was no electoral law. There were no political parties, laws. There were no electoral constituencies. There had been no geographies that had been defined. There were lots of mechanical problems, and the fundamental issue of not having an accurate census, that suggested that if you're going to start with elections, you're talking about at least a two-year delay. That's what all the electoral experts told us.
I felt quite strongly that we couldn't simply have the very first step toward our departure be two years away. It was clear to me that the political mood in Iraq would not tolerate that. People back in Washington said they didn't think they would tolerate it either. That idea had to be pushed aside somehow, which is what gave birth, in the end, to this Nov. 15 agreement, as a way to move it forward a little more quickly, which is what the Iraqis wanted. ...
And did you believe that it could be done in that time frame?
I honestly didn't know. The Iraqis told us they thought it could be done in two months. My adviser said, 'No, it's going to take them three months.' It took two and a half months or whatever it turned out to be. We got it done. It took very intense negotiations, including three days in a row with no sleep twice to get it done. But it got done. ...
I think the interim constitution is the primary legacy of the CPA in Iraq, and most Iraqis agree, because it provided a framework for them to move toward democracy. It provided the way in which they could hold elections, which they did a year later -- three elections in 2005. It provided a way to structure a federal structure for the government. It made an initial cut at trying to resolve difficult issues of resource allocation, powers of the central government versus the provincial governments. It provided for the rule of law for the first time in recent Iraq's history.
At some moment, the way I read it, a lot of people are saying: 'What is the CPA? Whom does it report to? … Who did you report to, in your mind?
... My instructions from the president were very clear. I was to report to him through the secretary of defense. ... Of course, I also saw the president on a fairly regular basis, either in person, spoke to him on the phone, or in these televised meetings. I was in regular communication with the secretary of state, both by phone and by e-mail throughout the time I was there. He happens to be an old friend of mine whom I've known since he was the V Corps commander in Germany in the early 1980s and I was ambassador to the Netherlands. I spoke to Dr. Rice fairly regularly during this time as well.
I viewed that my boss was the president, and my immediate supervisor was the secretary of defense. That's the way it was set up. But I had to keep other people informed to the degree I could, and I tried to. ...
It's pretty clear that by roughly September of 2003, after three or four months, Dr. Rice felt that she was not getting enough immediate information about what was going on. Now, I don't know what the communications were between Secretary Rumsfeld and Dr. Rice; you'd have to ask them. But she told me after she established the Iraqi back office, the support group, in early October that she had done that basically for that reason. She felt that it was important to the president that she have a clearer sense of what was going on in Baghdad.
I welcomed it. I was all in favor of her having a very clear sense and of the president having a very clear sense of what was going on. ...
[Tell me about Rumsfeld's September 2003 visit to Iraq.]
Secretary Rumsfeld came out on one of his periodic visits in early September. I think it was Sept. 4 or Sept. 5, 2003, and he went and met the military commanders. Then he came and met my staff. We had dinner together, and we were discussing our work plan. At one point, he said that he wasn't [sure] that we had a sense of urgency about what we were doing.
As I said in my note that night to my wife, I was pretty frosted by this comment. We were people there working 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, under fairly regular attack, mortar and rocket attacks. We had a great sense of urgency; there's no question about that. We were working very hard. I explained to him that I thought if he looked around the palace he would find all of these people, everybody working full out. Maybe we weren't doing the right thing -- that's another matter -- but we were certainly working hard. ...
[How did you find out that Condoleezza Rice was taking over postwar policy?]
Secretary Rumsfeld came on one of his regular visits in early December and asked me to see him off at the airport, which I would normally do. We drove out there, and at the airport, he took me aside and said that he was aware that Dr. Rice had this support group that she'd set up back there. His impression was that I was dealing with her and directly with the president through her on political matters. I said, 'Yes, she's certainly very active in this thing.' I got the impression at that point that he was essentially going to focus now almost entirely on the security aspects, and the political stuff was going to be left to the Rice channel. ...
... Why was it so hard to get anybody's heads around what was going on on the military and security side of it in that fall of 2003?
The American army faced a very difficult problem in the fall of 2003. First of all, the insurgency turned out to be bigger than we had expected. Secondly, we did not have good intelligence on the insurgency still -- didn't know who these people were, how they were organized, what was command and control, who was running the thing.
Thirdly, the army was looking at a very substantial troop rotation in the spring of 2004. I think it was 15 brigades that we had on the ground, and we were going to have to rotate 15 brigades over. The army was looking at its overall manning and saying: 'This is going to be very hard to do. We may be able to do a rotation in 2004, but in 2005, it gets very hard, because you have the same people coming back.'
I understood and was sympathetic with their problem. Their answer, however, was to say that we would be able to reduce the size of that rotation, thereby cutting down our troop strength by relying more on Iraqi police. I simply disagreed with them. I did not believe the police would be professionally trained to that level by the spring of 2004. ...
Some people close to all this report that Rice was saying that she felt she had to go to foreign services to get information about what was going on in Baghdad and with the CPA. ...
... That's possible. We found -- and I talked about it in the book -- Ambassador McManaway and I found that a lot of the information that we were putting back through our reporting channels to the Pentagon was not finding its way to other parts of the U.S. government for whatever reason.
First of all, for some time -- months, a month or a month and a half -- we didn't have any cable communications. We had a lot of problems with communications out there, so a lot of the communication was being done by telephone, by secure telephone, or e-mail. A lot of that information was not making its way, I found, when I was back on consultations, to the State Department, to the CIA. Dr. Rice didn't raise it with me, but I assume it wasn't making it to Dr. Rice.
I think part of her motivation in setting up this Iraqi support group, or whatever she called it, was to try to get better coordination on a lot of the information that was coming back. ...
Let's go to the interim government. To make the handover, what was the big hump that you had to overcome with the interim government?
The hardest and most important thing was to get an agreed candidate for prime minister, agreed obviously with the U.S. government, but we also needed to work with Lakhdar Brahimi, who was, at that time, special envoy of the U.N. secretary-general.
We had to go through a number of candidates. We had to also find out what the Iraqis thought of various candidates, both the Shi'a, the Sunni, the Kurds, people like Sistani and others. That, in many ways, was the most difficult part of the process. And of course, this being Iraq, it was just sort of like a three-dimensional tic-tac-toe game, this politics.
Once you think you have that part pinned down, then you have to pin down the other things. Who are the deputy prime ministers? Who is the president? Who's getting which ministries? It's basically putting together a government. But the key, in many ways, was figuring out about the prime minister.
And all through this process, is the president aware of how dicey it all is?
Well, yes. When we were working on the interim government, Ambassador Bob Blackwill, who worked for Dr. Rice and was a deputy national security adviser, was present in Baghdad. He came to Baghdad when Lakhdar Brahimi was there. He was there representing the president throughout and reporting directly to Dr. Rice on what the conversations were, as I was also. We got feedback, both directly in conversations with the president and through Dr. Rice on this, on a daily basis, sometimes twice daily.
Tell me the story of how you left Baghdad.
The June 30 date for handover of sovereignty had been before the public for seven months, ever since the Nov. 15 agreement. ... We were looking at intelligence suggesting that the terrorists and the insurgents were planning a major series of attacks on June 30 to embarrass us, make it look as if we were being chased out of Iraq, not that we were leaving on our own.
The press came up with the idea of maybe leaving a couple of days early to wrong-foot the terrorists' plan. I thought that was a great idea, with two provisos: First, of course, the prime minister had to agree, which he did; and secondly, we needed to have an early departure, preceded by a few relatively quiet days, again, so it didn't look like we were leaving early because of an upsurge of violence.
We were lucky. We left, in the end, on a Monday, June 28. Wednesday and Thursday the week before, there had been quite a lot of attacks, but it started to tail off on Friday and Saturday.
Meanwhile, some of our planes had been attacked by surface-to-air missiles flying in and out of the Baghdad Airport, so my security detail was concerned that once terrorists knew when I was leaving -- and they knew that I came and went on a C-130 almost all the time -- that they would just start firing SAMs at a C-130 and hope that they could shoot me down on my way out. So we had to devise a way to get out that didn't involve a C-130, and we had to keep, of course, all of it secret. Most of my staff thought we were going to leave on June 30. ...
My very able staff was able to locate an unmarked U.S. government plane in a different part of the airport so that when I got to the airport to leave, I got onto a C-130 and waved goodbye to the Iraqi deputy prime minister. I got on with my security detail and we pulled up the stairs, and we just sat in the C-130, which was not comfortable, by the way. The temperature was about 120 that day in the airport. We sat there for about 15 minutes while the press and everybody went away, and then we went off out over the cargo -- it was in the C-130 in the back -- and flew on a helicopter to another part of the airport, and instead of going out on a C-130, went out on a smaller government plane to Jordan safely. ...
Jim Dobbins says: 'We went to Iraq with an overly ambitious agenda of social engineering. Expectations led to resistance, and we didn't have military or economic assistance to make it happen.'
I felt I had two major goals. First of all, it was to provide security for the Iraqi people. It's the fundamental goal of any government. It was my number one priority from the day I arrived virtually to the day I left. And secondly, [it was] to help the Iraqis rebuild their country, reclaim their country, rebuild it economically, put them on a path to political democracy.
It was clear to me you couldn't do the second goal without achieving the first goal. Right from the start, I had put a very high emphasis on security. It was an ambitious undertaking to help Iraq reclaim its country, rebuild it economically, put it on a path to political freedom. ...
Now, it is true, I think, that we didn't have sufficient resources, military and economic, to accomplish all of that in the 14 months of the occupation. By the time I left Iraq 14 months later, the American people had voted $18 billion to help reconstruct Iraq. By the time I left, less than 1 percent of that had actually been spent on Iraq reconstruction, and that's a problem I had with the bureaucracy in Washington. But it shows you that we were not bringing the resources quickly to bear on one of our major goals, which was to show improvement in the daily life of the Iraqis.
Ambassador Dobbins is right that we had insufficient resources, military and economic. I do not believe it was an overly ambitious program. It was ambitious, no question. ...
One of the things we noticed as we were talking to everybody is this idea of chain of command problems, or lack of boots on the ground and chain of command as an issue, the idea that you could be viceroy. Do you take umbrage at that term?
Yeah. I call myself the administrator.
... We hear stories of you not knowing about military things that happened. ... Tell me a little bit about that.
Well, this question of chain of command is complicated. [It] really, in a way, goes back to our Constitution, which established the military chain of command from the president now running down through the secretary of defense to the military commanders. It's quite clear that a civilian, which is what I was, was not going to be in the chain of command. I was not going to have authority to order troops around, nor would I have asked for that. I'm not a military expert. I wouldn't want to tell a general how to patrol with tanks. It's beyond my capability.
We tried to resolve this difficulty by an order from the secretary of defense to the military commanders, asking them to coordinate and support my objectives, which by and large they tried to do. Obviously there are going to be always tensions between the military and political objectives of an occupation, and there were. You have to sort those out as best you can. There isn't a solution, a bureaucratic solution to it. ...
Rajiv Chandrasekaran has an impression that you wanted to have a kind of grand plan when you went in. ... Is he right about that?
We had an ambitious goal in Iraq set by the president, not by me, which I agreed with, which was to try to bring better government to Iraq and help them rebuild their economy, their country. That was the grand idea.
Behind that, in the president's mind, I think, lay the idea that bringing democracy to countries in the Middle East would improve the security of the United States, because it would take away the kind of brutal regime that Saddam had been. We'd been at war with all of his neighbors, after all.
So I agreed with the grand strategy, which is to try to bring democracy to these countries. But in terms of Iraq, my guidance was quite clear: Let's see if we can get the Iraqis on a path to democracy, to representative government, and help them rebuild their economy, help them reconstitute their economy. ...
One of the things that you'll read in Rajiv's book [Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone] is that the hiring process that you had was dysfunctional, that jobs went not to the best and the brightest, but to the loyal and the willing.
We had a lot of trouble with personnel, and there were two aspects. One, and the most important, was I never got enough people. Even as late as March of 2004, the inspector general reported that only 56 percent of our billets had been filled. We always had that problem right to the end.
I had very little control over the actual assignment of people there, other than my own staff. Frankly, I didn't have very much time anyway. What would I have done if I'd have [had] more control? Maybe I would have paid more attention; maybe I would have gotten better people. But that was basically taken care of by offices in Washington. ... I might see a biography, or one of my staff might, and we'd say yes or no, but we really didn't have, frankly, very much time to vet all of the people coming out there. That's true.
He talks about a group he calls the 'brat pack.' Does this sound familiar to you?
No. ... I don't know who they're referring to. I had 3,000 people working for me. ...
A lot of pundits and outside observers, and even some inside observers, have said ... that the Green Zone became very insular, that as it became harder and harder to travel around, to get out and about -- ...
There's no question that we had to pay a lot of attention to security, particularly after the rocket attack on the al-Rashid [Hotel]. And indeed it was because my security people said they can't move back in that I said to the staff, 'We're not moving back in there.'
It's true that as the insurgency picked up, it became more difficult for people to move around outside of the Green Zone. There's no question it became more difficult. It became more dangerous for me to travel, but I continued to travel, and I traveled to all the provinces throughout the 14 months, and I continued to travel. ... But I had a lot of protection. For my staff it was more difficult. There's no question it became harder.
On the other hand, it was also at this time, in the fall of 2003, that we finally got out provincial offices established in 15 different cities outside of Baghdad, where we had a very substantial number of American and other coalition diplomats, most of them Arabic-speaking, who were able to stay in touch.
People, particularly the journalists who were based in Baghdad, tended to think that the only information we had was [from] the people in the Green Zone, because they're the only people they saw, because the journalists didn't travel out to the provinces. But we had regular people reporting from Basra, Diwaniyah, from Qadisiyah Province, from Nineveh, from all over the country, really starting in the fall of 2003. Certainly it was harder for the people in Baghdad, no question. And it was dangerous for the people in the province[s].
... In Thomas Ricks' book [Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq], maybe even in Michael Gordon's book [Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq], there are stories about military guys coming into meetings at the Green Zone and finding it like an oasis, with discos and bars and pools and young people. There's a brothel [according to] one book. They kept saying, 'There's this weird civilian disconnect.' ... What about that?
Well, look, I traveled and visited military units all over the country, and they were living in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. It was hot; they didn't have running water; they were sleeping on cots, many times under canvas. It was tough. I suppose there's never been a war fought anywhere in history where the guys out in the field didn't look askance at the guys back at headquarters who are living it up and having a nice life.
Some of this, one must simply say, 'Well, tell me something new.' It is certainly the case that guys who are out there on the pointy end of the stick, putting their lives at risk every day in a very difficult circumstance, are going to see the headquarters through different eyes. I understand that.
It's not the Emerald City, though?
No. Well, I don't know where the term 'Emerald City' comes from. ... Just to be clear, we also had daily, or usually nightly, rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone. It was not a picnic there, either. It certainly wasn't as dangerous as being out at a forward operating base someplace, but we spent a lot of times in the bomb shelter in the Green Zone, too. ...
... When do you feel the presence of Blackwill at the National Security Council?
I didn't have any contact with him, or any substantive contact with him, until after Dr. Rice established this Iraq support group, which was in early October. ...
Blackwill told us he reads the traffic. ... He says: 'You know what? I don't like the way things are going over there. I don't like the political vibration. I don't like this idea of occupation. I don't know how long we can sustain it.' ... And then your op-ed piece appears in The Washington Post. And for him, the way he remembers the narrative, an alarm bell goes off. He says: 'We've got to do something about this. This is not going to work.' Sound familiar?
... What do you remember him coming out to Iraq for?
By the time he came, but indeed by the time Dr. Rice set up her Iraqi support group, we knew full well that we were not going to be able to carry out the long-term program that I had laid out. We were not able to carry it out, not because Blackwill said we couldn't carry it out, but because Sistani said we couldn't carry it out.
Indeed, when I came back to Baghdad at the end of September, Sept. 30, I said to my staff, 'We're getting ourselves in a corner here, because Sistani has made it impossible for the Shi'a Islamists in the Iraqi government to get out of a corner to forgo following Sistani's guidance, which was that elections have to happen as the very first step.' As the U.N. had told us, as independent electoral experts had told us, if we made elections the first step in returning sovereignty, we would delay the return of sovereignty by two full years. I said, 'We can't wait two years.'
I had exactly the same perception that people in Washington had, which was we were worked into a corner, and we had to find our way out. It took us another [few] months to work our way out of that, which we did by Nov. 15. ...
[Tell me about your frustrations with Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mehdi army.]
My concern about Moqtada al-Sadr ... was that the Iraqi Justice Department, an Iraqi judge had issued an arrest warrant for him for killing a very highly respected ayatollah right after liberation, and one of our primary goals in Iraq was to establish the rule of law. Now, here's an Iraqi judge who has issued an arrest warrant, and he wants to go arrest this guy.
About the third week of July, Moqtada al-Sadr, in his newspaper, published a list of what he called '124 traitors,' people who were cooperating in some fashion with the coalition, translators. Two of those people, after that list had been published, were killed. In the article, he had said these traitors should get what they deserve.
He not only was subject to an arrest warrant issued by an Iraqi judge for the murder of a respected ayatollah, but his paper incited the actual continued murder of Iraqis who were cooperating with the coalition. I felt this was a very dangerous man, and I thought we should move against him before he got stronger.
I was unable to persuade our government to let this happen. ... The Iraqi police did not feel that they had sufficient force to be able to carry out the arrest unless they were backed up by coalition forces. ... My first effort to get him arrested by the Iraqis was in early August of 2003. ... Just as I thought we were getting to a point where we might persuade Washington to let the Iraqi police do this, we had the first major terrorist attack, the bombing of the U.N. building on Aug. 19, and the whole thing got pushed off into the future because there was a lot of concern there. Then we had a major attack in Najaf, another bombing two weeks later, that killed almost 200 people. It sort of went off the front burner for a couple of months. It came again in October; it came up again in March.
As time went on, it became clearer and clearer that this man was not only dangerous; he was really dangerous and effectively had learned everything he knew from Saddam Hussein. His Mehdi army, as he subsequently began to call them, went into towns in Qadisiyah Province in the south and conducted ethnic cleansing, basically killed and chased away gypsies.
He set up what he called 'courts,' which were extralegal courts just like Saddam Hussein had, kangaroo courts, which dragged people in and found them guilty and then put them in his own prisons. We had people who were escaped from the prisons who gave us eyewitness reports of their being tortured there. We then had eyewitnesses, women, who had been raped in his prisons. ...
I can't say that I had the foreknowledge when I first was anxious to crack down on him that he would be as bad as he was. I did believe that we should have moved while he only had a couple of hundred followers. By the time I left, he had thousands of followers.
Who were you talking to in Washington? Is this straight to Rumsfeld?
Yes, the secretary of defense.
And what would he say when you'd say, 'We've got to get this guy'?
Well, the first and most intense interaction that I remember was in this period of early August 2003, when I think, actually, most of the discussions were between my deputy ambassador and the undersecretary for policy, Doug Feith, not directly between me and Rumsfeld. I may have had a conversation with Rumsfeld. I frankly don't remember.
But I know there were memos back and forth between McManaway and Feith, asking various questions about it. There were indications that some people in our military, who were reluctant to let the Iraqi police carry out this arrest, understandably worried that this would be politically controversial. That's true. It would have been difficult. It would have been a lot easier to do it in August, however, than it came to be later.
And did you ever have a sense that Rumsfeld understood ... that it was important to do?
No. ... There was another event in October when Moqtada's people killed a number of American soldiers in Karbala, the holy city in the south. I mean, he had actually killed them -- I mean, shot them.
At that point, it became clearer to some people in Washington that we had to move on him. At that point, then, there were problems about how we'd actually carry out the operation. ... Again, I think there were people in our military who were very reluctant to move against him. Again, I can understand it. This was not an easy decision. …
... Gen. Sanchez, gathering up, arresting across the country, taking people out of Abu Ghraib and other places -- how big a mistake were those sweeps?
I think the sweeps were justified. The problem wasn't that. The problem was that we had no effective system of triage, of deciding who we needed to keep. I began raising my concerns about these large numbers of detainees sometime at the end of the summer. I don't remember if it was in July or August, because at that point, we had about 10,000 Iraqis in a number of places.
It came home very clearly to me once, when a highly respected Iraqi judge came to me and said: 'Your forces have arrested a former member of the Iraqi Supreme Court, and he's a good man, even though he was a member of the Supreme Court. He's 76 years old, and I understand,' the Iraqi told me, 'he's being hold in Umm Qasr,' which is in the south. In August in Umm Qasr, you're talking about daytime temperatures in the 140s. He said, 'I will give you my personal word that he will not leave if you want to interrogate him again, but he really should, for health reasons, be got out of there.'
It took the military three weeks to find this guy to confirm they, in fact, had him. And then I asked. I said, 'Look, I've got the parole of a very senior Iraqi judge here who's willing to give his personal word on this guy.' It took another two weeks to get him released.
It was pretty clear to me that we had a really big problem managing this large number of detainees. I could understand that we would sweep them up. You're running a small platoon in through a neighborhood. You're fired on from a house, you go in, you arrest all of the men over 16 or 17 in the house. You take them in; you don't have time to interrogate them right there, because there's fire coming from the next building. ... I could understand that.
The problem was what we did with them then afterwards. We never really got an effective system for identifying [individuals], and doing effective triage on these detainees was very, very difficult. ...
What happened with Fallujah? You were a big supporter of getting in there. Blackwill says he's with you on this; that between the two of you, you'll force some action. Tell me that story.
I felt pretty strongly about a broad problem that the problems in Fallujah showed us, which was that we seemed not to have a strategy for affecting a real change of control of some of these cities. Our forces had been in and out of Fallujah I think four or five times by the time of April 2004. Every time we'd go in, the military would go in, and they'd try to suppress the insurgents and try to capture terrorists. But then, 24 hours or 48 hours later they'd leave, and the city would fall right back again under the control of these people.
There was a long-term concern that I always had that we were not doing what subsequently became our policy: Clear, hold and rebuild. If you just go in and clear and then leave, you haven't really changed the fundamentals for the better for the Iraqi people living in a town like Fallujah. That was the general background.
We had had a situation in Fallujah in, I think, February, where a concerted insurgent attack on the prison … killed a number of the prison guards who were members of the Iraqi police, and freed a whole lot of captured insurgents. We had not responded military to this event. Some months had gone by.
When the Marines came in to take over the area around Fallujah, which was the third week of March, the commander of the Marines, Gen. [James] Conway, told me he didn't think that his predecessors, who were the 82nd Airborne, had been effective in really controlling the city. I said: 'I agree. I think you really need to do something.'
Now, what triggered the event in Fallujah, however, was a vicious attack on some private contractors, security contractors working for an American company, who were not only attacked and killed, but then dismembered and their body parts hung from a bridge in Fallujah.
A number of people, including Gen. Sanchez, thought that this required an immediate and vigorous response by coalition forces, because the Iraqi police in Fallujah did not respond. And indeed, Sanchez ordered -- because he was the commander -- ordered the Marines to go in, find the perpetrators of this terrible attack, and try to bring some order into this city, which is a Wild West kind of a town. So that was the origin of the problem. I certainly supported that. ...
[How did the Governing Council respond?] Does it feel like it's falling apart and about to spin out of control?
This was only half of the crisis at that point, because at the same time, Moqtada al-Sadr … chose this moment to also attack the coalition, and had killed a number of American soldiers, and was attacking our civilian outposts in Najaf, Karbala, all throughout the south, Nasiriyah, Basra.
We had two major crises at the same time, which also very seriously stretched our military capability at that moment. ... The April/May period of 2004 was certainly the fundamental crisis of our occupation. ...
The Iraqi political system was on the brink of flying apart. The Sunni members of the Governing Council were outraged by the nightly broadcasts on Al Jazeera television, which were especially provocative about the civilian deaths in Fallujah. There certainly were civilian deaths, but these were very provocative reports.
The Shi'a were concerned about what was happening with Moqtada al-Sadr because he was a Shi'a. They wanted us to defeat Moqtada al-Sadr, but they were worried about what the consequences would be.
The third dimension of the problem was that the U.N. special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was there helping us put together the political process that would eventually lead to the return of sovereignty, himself a Sunni Arab, was threatening to call off his mission entirely and leave the country.
The confluence of these three things, I felt, put us in the gravest crisis of the coalition period in Iraq, because it was quite possible that the entire process would blow up. We would not be able to leave and return sovereignty to the Iraqis as planned by June 30, which in turn would mean we couldn't carry out the elections, which is what Sistani wanted. And he could speak for the majority of the people, the Shi'a. It was the major crisis of the coalition.
How did it resolve itself? How did you get the military to stop?
I suggested, and in the end the president agreed with, a differentiated policy. Toward Moqtada al-Sadr, we needed to be as vigorous as possible, going after his illegal militia, killing as many as we could. Moqtada himself had quite cleverly barricaded himself in a holy mosque in the town of Kufa, so there was no way we were going to get at him, but we could get at as many of his people as possible. We could retake a number of provincial capitals, which his illegal militia had overrun, capital of Al Kut, Karbala. We could take those over, and we did. We needed to pursue them as vigorously as possible, and we did.
[In] Fallujah, the problem was that our efforts to negotiate with the officials in the town -- they offered to negotiate and said they could control this themselves -- were getting nowhere. In fact, we were sort of being led along into thinking these negotiations would resolve the problem, and they wouldn't.
In the end, ... I felt very badly about it, because I had been encouraging us to do something there. I said, 'You must understand, Mr. President, that the consequences of continuing there are very likely going to be that it's going to blow up this political process, and we're not going to be able to transfer sovereignty, and we're not going to be able to, therefore, get onto the election program for 2005.' And it had to be the commander in chief who had to make that decision. It was a very tough call.
How did he take it when you told him that?
He understood. He understood, and I think with, I would guess, great reluctance, agreed that we had to put a temporary hold on the attack. I also said at that time -- he also agreed -- we know sooner or later we're going to have to go into Fallujah. It's completely outlaw; it's completely beyond the law. We know that there's a lot of insurgents there. We knew that Al Qaeda was active there. But it's better if it can be done first when there's a sovereign Iraqi government that orders the attack on Fallujah. Secondly, better if Iraqi forces can also be involved, because, of course, the Iraqi forces had collapsed in the spring of '04. Those two things will make it more palatable ... and of course, about six months later, that's exactly what we did.
How big a howl from the military was there?
They were pretty unhappy, and I understood that, especially since I had been encouraging them to go in there. Again, this is one of these cases where you have a civilian perspective on the situation, and a military perspective. The military perspective is, look, we've got a job to do here. Give us another week or 10 days or two weeks or whatever, and we'll clean out Fallujah.
I had to say, 'Well, you probably could do that in a week or 10 days or whatever it is, but at the end of that process, there may be no political way forward.' My judgment was, that's a worse outcome than stopping now and dealing with Fallujah when there's a sovereign Iraqi government with Iraqi forces that can complement coalition forces.
We've talked to people who say ... the lost year had a kind of capstone put on it by what happened at Fallujah, that it was just an example of how out of control and unstable the political process and the military --
Well, let's look at the political process. Now, I heard from people, often from military officers, throughout the time I was there, that the key to security in Iraq is to give the Iraqis a political path forward, and then things will be better. The insurgency will dissolve because they'll know that they can have their own way forward.
We gave them that. We gave them a constitution. We gave them a clear political path forward, and the insurgency continued. It turns out that the political path forward was not the key to security. It's the other way around. Security is the key to a stable Iraq.
... Why didn't it happen? Why didn't we have that security?
I don't know. I suppose somebody will eventually write the definitive book. A lot of the decisions on the size of the military and its deployment and rules of engagement were made before the war. That's what happens. Militaries make plans, and those are the plans.
By the time I came into government, the military planning was to cut our forces in half within three months. That was the first plan that was presented to me. We had about 140,000 troops on the ground, and they were going to go down to 60,000 by September of 2003. That was their plan. How did they arrive at that number? I don't know, but that was their plan. I considered it unrealistic, and I said so. In fact, I said, 'I think you'll need more troops.' ...
There's a May 18, 2004, meeting that you have with Rice and [then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley. ... At this point, it's vocalized that the insurgency has created a situation where a coalition has become an ineffective occupier, and it's because of loss of the support of Iraqis. Is that a correct report?
At the end of the double crisis of the spring of 2004 -- the uprising by the Mehdi army and the difficulties in Fallujah -- it became clear to me that we had not provided the most fundamental goal of any government, which is to provide security for the Iraqi people. ...
At that point -- this is in May of 2004 -- I'd been there a year. I had been upset by the fact that looting was going on without any reaction a year ago. Now, here we were a year later, and we were still not providing adequate security to the Iraqi people.
We could tell in the opinion polling we were doing -- we were polling the Iraqi people probably every three weeks. Now, opinion polling in a country that's been through 35 years of repressive government, you have to take with a grain of salt, but you could see a trend, and one of the trends was increasing dissatisfaction among the Iraqis with the coalition, largely because we had not provided adequate security. They also worried about electricity and water and so forth, but security was at the top of the list.
My conclusion from that was, first, that I again reiterated that I thought we needed more troops. It was about this time that I suggested to Secretary Rumsfeld, 'We ought to think about another division or two of coalition forces.' I mentioned to Dr. Rice that we were in risk of being labeled as an occupier, but not a particularly effective one, because we haven't provided security. ...
Some people call the year of the CPA occupation the 'lost year in Iraq.' ... Would you agree with that description?
No, I don't think it was a lost year. We faced three challenges, and we did pretty well on two and not as well on the third. Ones which we did very well on was getting them a political process, a constitution, a path toward elections. They had three elections in 2005, which is remarkable, both for the region and in Iraq's history. They now have a democratically elected government. Those are pretty thin on the ground in that part of the world. So that's a substantial achievement. ...
We had to help the Iraqis rebuild their economy. Here we had some successes, not as much as I would have liked. It was very difficult to get the major amount of money that the American taxpayers have committed to Iraq spent while I was there. Less than 1 percent of the $18 billion had been spent on reconstruction by the time I left, which was very frustrating. But we had spent billions of Iraqi dollars, funds from the Iraqi government, on reconstruction. We had spent almost a billion dollars through very small projects that the military commanders ran. We had some progress there.
Security was the area where we had, I think, the most disappointing results. Did we lose a year? Well, I don't know if we lost a year. The security situation was difficult. We faced an insurgency which was more resilient than we thought. We had not [had] good intelligence on that insurgency, certainly not for the first six months or so.
We had difficulty coming up with a military strategy to defeat the insurgency. There was, perhaps, some wishful thinking on the part of our military about the speed with which we'd be able to substitute Iraqi forces for coalition forces. I think that wishful thinking was pretty much shown to be wishful thinking in the spring of 2004.
But on the whole, the American people can say we did a noble thing throwing over one of the most vicious regimes anywhere in the world at the end of the 20th century. We put the Iraqis on the right path, politically, to a better political future, and they now have got, certainly, the right plans to rebuild their economy. All that remains now is to effect a security strategy that defeats the Sunni insurgency. That's the most important missing ingredient, at this point. ...