Monday, July 30, 2012

Paul Bremer Shows Little Regret about Role in Iraq

By Namo Abdulla -- Rudaw

CHESTER, United States -- A densely forested and isolated town in the state of Vermont is a far cry from the deserts of the Middle East. But though Chester is a long way from Basra, it is home to a man who governed Iraq.
“The de-Baathifcation decree was never intended to exclude Baathists
from being in the government,” says Paul Bremer  

Paul Bremer’s policies had a more long-lasting influence than his 382-day tenure as the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq, a post-war institution created to rule the country from May 2003 to June 2004.

Two of Bremer’s policies, which were particularly prominent and favored by the Kurds, received wide-ranging criticism from pundits as factors for the sectarian strife that broke out not long after Bremer left the country.

One of which was a decree drafted to outlaw the former Baath Party. It was called “de-Baathification” in English, but what Iraqis implemented was closer to the Arabic or Kurdish version of the word, “ijtithath - rishekeshkrdn” -- to uproot.

About the implementation of this, Bremer showed a little regret. “Of course,” he said, “the de-Baathifcation decree was never intended to exclude Baathists from being in the government.”  

“It affected only 1 percent of the Baath Party, the top 1 percent. The mistake I made was turning the implementation of the decree over to Iraqi politicians, who then expanded the implementation far beyond what was written in the decree,” Bremer said, adding that he should have turned the decree over to lawyers and judges who would have had a narrower, legal approach.

Bremer believes that de-Baathification itself was the correct decision and had been made long before he was appointed as Iraq’s governor.    

“The decree itself was essentially part of the agreed American policy from before the fall of Saddam,” he said.

Bremer added, “The Baath Party had been the primary instrument of political oppression, just as the army had been the primary instrument of physical oppression. The party had to be outlawed, and then the top people could not work in government.”

However, many former Baathists and soldiers joined armed insurgent groups who have ravaged much of the country over the past nine years.

At his home in Chester, Bremer appeared proud of his past. On a table in the front hall, dozens of medals, including a few he received for his work in Iraq, are displayed. One of which is a semi-circle painted with Iraq’s new flag that carries the words “God is the Greatest.” It does not have the three stars Saddam Hussein placed on the old flag, under which Bremer served too.

On the day Rudaw visited him last week, nobody else was at home except for two small white dogs. Appearing relaxed, Bremer was not wearing the kind of business attire he sported at the historic moment he declared Saddam Hussein had been arrested with the simple words: “Ladies and gentleman, we got him.”  

This time, the retired diplomat, whose next job is teaching at the American University in Washington, D.C., was wearing jeans and sneakers with his shirt sleeves rolled up. Even the books on his shelves were mostly non-political: several volumes by Charles Dickens stood out next to books by William Shakespeare, whose portrait hangs in Bremer’s living room.

Asked why he thought it was necessary to dissolve the Iraqi Army and, in turn, lay off nearly 400,000 soldiers, Bremer replied, “The question was not should we dissolve the Iraqi Army, it was should we recall the Iraqi Army because there was no Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Army had disappeared. The commanding generals reported there were no Iraqi units anywhere in place. They’d gone home.”

“As the people of Kurdistan are well aware, it was a primary instrument of Saddam Hussein’s terror not just against Iraqi Arabs but against Iraqi Kurds,” Bremer added.

He gave two reasons -- one practical and one political -- why it was the correct decision to build the army anew. 
“Practically, it would’ve meant sending American forces into the villages, farms and towns to force the conscripts, the enlisted men, back into the army they hated, under Sunni Arab officers they hated.”

The political reason, Bremer said, pressured the United States to surrender to the new reality it helped create with the invasion of Iraq.

“It was very clear,” he said, “from the cooperation we were getting from both the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi Shia, that both of them would consider the recalling of the Iraqi Army a hostile action. In fact, the Kurdish leaders made it very clear to me that if we had recalled the Iraqi Army, they would secede from Iraq. They would have declared an independent Kurdistan.”

Bremer spoke a few words in Persian, learned in three years spent as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan. Iraq’s post-Saddam Shia leaders spent years in exile in Iran, but Bremer does not share the worry of some Washington officials and Iraq experts that these leaders will work to serve the interests of the increasingly isolated government in Tehran.

“When I was in Iraq, there were a lot of people in Washington that were concerned about the rise of the Iraqi Shia … I have never believed that Iraqi Shias were essentially pawns of the government in Tehran. I just don’t believe that, including Maliki,” he said.

One reason this is the case, Bremer argued, is the fact that Iraqis and Iranians are ethnically different.
“I think it overlooks the fact that, other than the Kurds, the Shia and Sunnis are Arabs, not Persians. The border between Iraq and Iran is a border that predates Mohammed. It’s basically an ethnic border between the Arab and Persian peoples,” he said.