Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat – Paul Bremer was the de-facto Governor of Iraq between 11 May 2003 and 28 June 2004 in his role as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. As US Administrator of Iraq Bremer was the chief executive authority in the country and was effectively in charge of all Iraqi civil administration following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and prior to the creation of the Iraqi Interim government. Bremer’s stewardship of Iraq was plagued with controversy, particularly his decision to disband the Iraqi army, as well as his implementation of the policy of Debathification. Critics have attributed the strength of the insurgency and the worsening situation in Iraq during this period to some of his policies. Bremer was subject to a number of assassination attempts during his time as US Administrator of Iraq, and is perhaps most recognizable as being the man who announced the capture of Saddam Hussein. He has since gone on a speaking tour with regards to his time in Iraq, and has also written a book on his Iraqi experience. Bremer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush in 2004 for his service in Iraq, and currently serves as Chairman of the Advisory Board to Global Secure Corporation.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Mr. Ambassador, my first question is about the disbandment of the Iraqi army. We’ve heard a number of stories about this, some saying that this was not your decision but that it came down from the Pentagon. Can you tell us what really happened?
(Bremer) Hear are the facts…by the time Bagdad was liberated on 9 April 2003 the Iraqi Army had essentially disintegrated. On 17 April the Commander of the US forces said that there was not even one single unit of the Iraqi army standing as a unit…basically the army soldiers and officers had gone home. As you know the vast majority of the enlisted men were in fact draftees and most of these were Shiite, while most officers were Sunni. The question that we faced was not whether to disband the Iraqi army, the question was whether to recall it. We do not use this term [disband the army] and it is incorrect. As I wrote in my book, the problem was with regards to the size of the Iraqi army and whether the conscripts would return to an army that had been very hard on them. The Iraqi army had around 12,000 Generals, while the US army had only 307 Generals, therefore it would have been difficult to call this army to serve.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) 12,000 Generals, you say?
(Bremer) Yes 12,000, while the Americans only had 307 Generals at this time…so it was very tough. The other problem is that there were no barracks, all the military barracks and many governmental buildings had been destroyed, and so the decision was made. I was certain about it. This decision was discussed in depth by the Pentagon by civilian and military leadership and no objections were raised.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Were there any objections?
(Bremer) There were no objections.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Was the decision to disband the Iraqi army discussed by the Pentagon or the White House?
(Bremer) The channel through which I submit my reports to Washington is via the Pentagon, by way of Secretary of Defense [Donald Rumsfeld]. The channel through which military command on the ground submits their reports is also via the Pentagon. The Pentagon was responsible for coordinating between [the various] departments of US government in Washington. Rumsfeld approved the decision before transferring it to the White House by way of the National Security Adviser, and then the decision was approved. There were no objections.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There was not a single objection [to this decision], even in the White House?
(Bremer) No, not one single objection, I believe it was the right decision. I think it was a correct decision.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you still stand by this decision?
(Bremer) Absolutely, but it appears that the Pentagon did not coordinate with the State Department, the CIA, and the National Security Council, and I think that this was probably a mistake. I stand by the decision, and it was what I recommended when I briefed the National Security Council. This decision was approved by the President and the Secretary of the Defense.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) If that is the case, why do you think that many – including Americans – believe that this decision was a mistake?
(Bremer) I don’t see any reason to say that it was a wrong decision. I don’t accept that. I think it was the right decision. I think people who say it was the wrong decision have an obligation to say why they think that.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) People who are against the decision think it would have been better to clean up the old army by creating a new one based upon them, rather than disbanding the entire army. What do you think about those that believe this?
(Bremer) People who say that obviously didn’t study what we did. That was exactly what we did. When we started building a new Iraqi army we made several points, first of all that any member of the old army that wished to apply to join the new army be allowed to do so.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But many veterans that applied to join the new Iraqi army were refused?
(Bremer) Just a minute, I said that anybody who wanted to apply and join the new army would be allowed to do so; with regards to officers, anybody up to the rank of Colonel, and we said that we would pay-off the other officers that did not join the new army. By the time that I left Iraqi eighty percent of the soldiers in the new Iraqi army were veterans from the old army, while all the officers were veterans from the old army. The rest of the officers who were not accepted into the new army due to its [comparative] small size received their pension. We must not forget that Saddam Hussein’s army stood at around 600,000 soldiers, while the new army stands at around 40,000 soldiers, and the army has expanded since I left Iraq, so I do not understand this argument. The Kurds were very clear with us, they said that the recall of Saddam Hussein’s army would mean that there was not going to be an independent and democratic Iraq, they threatened to secede from Iraq. My analysis was that if this were to occur it would ignite a regional war involving Iraq’s neighbors. I stand by my decision, it was the right one, and I do not see any persuasive arguments to the contrary.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Why was the decision made to include only veterans up to the rank of Colonel in the new army?
(Bremer) The reason was that we were going to build an army of three divisions and so we would have no need for officers with ranks higher than Colonel until after the first division was deployed one year later. [Until then] we did not need Brigadier Generals, the military divisions would be commanded by Colonels.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the decision to implement de-Ba’athification? There are those who say this resulted in many of them taking up arms and fighting against the government?
(Bremer) Again it is important to deal with the facts, what did we do the day after the fall of Baghdad? I was a businessman at this point and not in Iraq, but General Tommy Franks, Commander of the US Central Command in Iraq decided not to deal with the Baathist party.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You were in Washington at this time?
(Bremer) My offices were in Washington and New York.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some people have said that you were preparing for your mission in Iraq even before the fall of Baghdad?
(Bremer) This is completely not true. I was running a company at this time.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Returning to the issue of Debathification in the post-Saddam period, what are your thoughts on this?
(Bremer) General Franks decided not to deal with the Baath party. In the discussions that took place prior to the war, and following the liberation, the US government decided that the senior Baathist leadership that worked in the government would not be pardoned, which is the decision that was implemented at the time. This top 1 percent of the Baathist party – which numbered around 20,000 – were forbidden from being involved with the new government. We did not say that they had to leave the country, they could set up businesses, or work in agriculture or the media; only they could not hold a governmental office.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think that was the right decision?
(Bremer) Yes , No question about it. I think the vast majority of the Iraqis strongly approve of Debathification, the only problem was in its implementation. After this law was signed I told the Iraqis that it would be very difficult for the Coalition forces to know whether a person joined the Baathist party because they believed in the Baathist ideology, or because it was the only way to find work. After this decision was passed I quickly turned the implementation of this over to the Iraqis, because they were better able to figure out whether somebody had joined the party because they believed in its ideology or because they wanted to find work. The mistake that I made is that I asked Iraqi politicians to implement this decision, and the decision was transferred to the Governing Council. That was a mistake.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Who should have taken this decision then? The Americans?
(Bremer) No. I should probably have set up something like a judicial council of Iraqi lawyers and judges [to make this decision].
(Asharq Al-Awsat) If this is the case, why did you choose politicians to make this decision?
(Bremer) It was a mistake. We were under pressure from Iraqi politicians who were pushing for more power; in particular they were pushing for authority over the process of Debathification because it was an extremely popular issue amongst the Iraqi public. We were trying to grant more responsibility to the Iraqi politicians, which is something that we did six months later in November 2003. The Debathification process was badly implemented, especially against teachers, and many of them were prevented from working, which was not the intention.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Why has this policy been specifically targeted against teachers?
(Bremer) It is understandable, during the Saddam Hussein era the curriculum was highly influenced by Baathist ideology, all text books were influenced by Baathist ideology, including even science text books. I assume that the politicians were worried about these teachers continuing to influence Iraqi children and youth, and in this way bringing about a return of the Baathist party. This is why they concentrated on the teachers. When we noticed that the Iraqi politicians were implementing Debathification too widely, I worked with the Iraqi Minister of Education to fix this, and I authorized him to re-employ around 11,000 teachers to the new Ministry of Education after they had been fired by the politicians. But in the end, the decision to give authority of Debathification to Iraqi politicians was a mistake.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But Debathification in itself was the correct decision?
(Bremer) Yes it was the correct decision, and extremely popular with the Iraqis.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Let us now turn to Saddam Hussein’s capture. There is a version of the story that says that his capture was based upon information given to a third party, and not directly to the American forces. What is the true story?
(Bremer) Well this is the situation. We were able to reach Saddam Hussein’s sons and relatives, which is what occurred on 23 July 2003. However a month passed by and we had no idea where Saddam Hussein was.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You had no information on his whereabouts?
(Bremer) The real problem is that we had too much information. One day we received information that he was driving an orange taxi around Baghdad, another day that he was driving a red rental car, there were many stories but no useful information. At a certain point the Coalition forces decided that the way that in which we were searching for Saddam Hussein was not feasible. The forces were concentrating on reaching his deputies and prominent aides in the belief that this would get us close to him. However this method [of searching for Saddam] was changed. And we decided to get into contact with some of the military in the new army that had a relationship with Saddam in search of useful information. On 12 December a man who had been working in some capacity for Saddam Hussein was picked up by one of our units. He was caught in a sweep looking for insurgents by the Fourth Division that was stationed in Tikrit [Saddam Hussein’s hometown]. The next morning he said that if you are really interested, there is somebody far more important than me hiding out in a farm in Southern Tikrit.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did he volunteer this information? Or was he put under some kind of pressure?
(Bremer) He freely volunteered this information.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What happened next?
(Bremer) The unit visited the farm in the evening of 13 December 2003, they found a table with some food on it, but nobody there. One of the soldiers by chance noticed a rope concealed in the dust, he pulled the rope to reveal Saddam Hussein’s spider-hole. Saddam Hussein emerged and said, I am Saddam Hussein. That is how he was found and captured.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You later met with Saddam Hussein, along with some Iraqi politicians. Do you remember what you said to him?
(Bremer) I did not say anything. I did not speak to him. The reason that we decided to allow those politicians [to meet Saddam] is because we were aware that the Iraqis are very affected by rumors. We were afraid that if the Iraqi [politicians] did not meet with Saddam Hussein after his capture, and than clearly inform the public that they had seen Saddam Hussein, the rumors would continue to circulate that we had not captured him at all.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Why didn’t you just film a video of Saddam Hussein after his capture and then broadcast this on television?
(Bremer) Yes, we could have done this, but we wanted Iraqi politicians to see him, and then go to the local television stations and say: Yes, we have seen him. That is why I took a group of Iraqi politicians to the secret location near Baghdad airport where Saddam Hussein was being held. I was accompanied by General Ricardo Sanchez, Commander of the US Forces in Iraq at that time, along with the group of Iraqi politicians. Saddam Hussein was sitting on a bed inside a small room.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How long did this meeting last?
(Bremer) The meeting between Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi politicians lasted around 45 minutes.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did Saddam Hussein recognize you?
(Bremer) He did not know who I was, and he did not speak to me.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about General Sanchez?
(Bremer) No , he didn’t recognize General Sanchez, but he recognized that he was a General because he was in uniform. He did not speak to Saddam Hussein, and Saddam Hussein did not ask him any questions. The entire conversation was conducted in Arabic, between Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi politicians.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did you shake Saddam Hussein’s hand when you first met him?
(Bremer) [laughing] He had no idea who I was.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Why didn’t either you or General Sanchez speak to Saddam Hussein?
(Bremer) I told my colleagues; this is an Iraqi show. This is an opportunity for Iraqi politicians to confirm that who we arrested is really Saddam Hussein.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did you enter Saddam Hussein’s room at this time?
(Bremer) I did not even enter the room, I just stayed near the door.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But he saw you?
(Bremer) Yes, he saw me, but he said nothing.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Were you aware that the meeting between Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi politicians would be extremely tense?
(Bremer) Yes, it was very tense. All of these men had in one way or another lost relatives and friends to the Saddam Hussein’s regime, many of them spent a long period of time in exile. They were very angry. Saddam was completely unrepentant, he didn’t apologize, he didn’t explain, he was completely unrepentant.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Were you afraid that one of these politicians might insult or attack Saddam Hussein?
(Bremer) Well, in addition to General Sanchez and myself, an Arabic speaking US solder who was translating for us was also present. I do not think either side was going to hurt the other, but obviously the Iraqi politicians were very angry.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But there was a possibility of this happening?
(Bremer) We had soldiers stationed close to the room.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You were monitoring the situation?
(Bremer) Yes, we were monitoring everything.