Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat – Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to the former adminstrator of Iraq Paul Bremer who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What was your most difficult experience in Iraq?
(Bremer) Well there were a number of them for example when Aqilah al-Hashimi, a very respectable Iraqi diplomat and member of the Governing Council, was assassinated in July 2003. Then there was the bombing of the UN Assistance Mission headquarters in Baghdad [Canal Hotel Bombing], which resulted in the death of my friend, the Brazilian [diplomat] Sergio Viera De Mello. There was also the bombing of Najaf at the end of August 2003 that killed around 200 people, including the brother of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim [leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq party]. There were also a number of occasions when American civilians who worked for me were killed. These were obviously difficult days…losing friends and people that I knew.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) We saw you present President Bush to the soldiers when he secretly visited Iraq during Thanksgiving. Was that a special experience for you in Iraq?
(Bremer) I think that was certainly one of them. It was a wonderful experience to witness the soldiers’ reaction because they did not know who to expect.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did you tell them that somebody important was coming?
(Bremer) There were around 600 soldiers and they did not have any information about who was coming to visit them for Thanksgiving.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Can you describe Bush’s visit?
(Bremer) President Bush was very affected by the joy that the soldiers showed upon seeing him. I saw tears of joy in their eyes. He had traveled halfway around the world to spend his Thanksgiving with them, which, in America, is an important holiday that you spend with your family, not traveling around the world. Obviously the day we captured Saddam Hussein was also a very important day.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) When did you receive the news that Saddam had been captured?
(Bremer) I was informed at about 1am on the morning of 14 December. Saddam was captured around 9.30 or 10pm the night before.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So you were not informed immediately of his capture?
(Bremer) There was a gap firstly because they had to be sure that they had in fact captured Saddam Hussein. He used a lot of [body] doubles. Then they decided to fly him down to Baghdad and have him [formally] identified by some other high-ranking members of his government, like [former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister] Tariq Aziz, [former Iraqi Vice President] Taha Yassin Ramadan and Ali Hassan al-Majid in order to be sure that they had the right person.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about testing his DNA?
(Bremer) They wanted to do a DNA test. We had DNA from his sons but the then military commander General John Abizaid told me that it would take probably 24 to 36 hours before they could be positive about the DNA and meanwhile we had to keep it secret, which was impossible. There is no way it could be kept secret. Somebody from the Fourth Infantry Division would call home and say we caught Saddam Hussein; it was going to be made public so we could not wait for the DNA. The military also had a plan, of which I was not aware until that morning, to take Saddam and put him on an American ship in the Gulf for his own safety. I vetoed that and said that that was out of the question; he belongs to the Iraqi people.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So you objected to the plan?
(Bremer) I objected. If we did that there would have been rumors that we never captured him. We had to show him physically then it would be up to the Iraqis to deal with him.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Where was the ship?
(Bremer) I don’t know, it was somewhere at sea. He would never have gone to another sovereign country; that would have been a problem.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) When did you receive confirmation that the man who had been arrested was in fact Saddam Hussein?
(Bremer) It was about 6am in Baghdad when I received the confirmation that it was Saddam. I called the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who was in Washington and I told her the news. She said that former President Bush was in Camp David and that she would tell him. I guess it was around midnight in Washington.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Then what did you do?
(Bremer) We were busy organizing the press conference during which we would announce that we had captured Saddam Hussein.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So that was your second happiest day in Iraq, what was your third?
(Bremer) 28th June 2004, the day I left…
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How long did you stay in Iraq?
(Bremer) Fourteen months. My family calls the day that I left Baghdad “liberation day”. We still celebrate that day, every year we have a new name for it.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Was your family with you in Baghdad?
(Bremer) No it was a war zone, no family allowed. My wife was in Washington.
I should say that another very important day was the day Iraq agreed on the constitution. This will be seen in history as a major contribution by the Coalition to Iraq by providing a political framework, an independent judiciary, a legislator and running all the elections…this was achieved by the Iraqis who have had three different governments since then.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How do you see the situation now?
(Bremer) I am quite hopeful about the situation in Iraq. I think President Bush made an extremely courageous decision to change the strategy and increase the troops at the end of 2006. What was important about the so-called surge was not actually the surge itself but the adoption of an effective strategy to call in the Sunni population to take part in the political process to form the Awakening Councils in order to isolate Al Qaeda extremists…and in places like Ramadi, and Fallujah and the Diyala province to some extent, to establish security for the people and to begin rebuilding. Whilst I was there, the biggest failure was in providing security for Iraqis citizens; I wrote that in my book and I said it publicly. I pushed for more troops and a better strategy from the day I got there till the day I left. The most important job for any government is providing security for citizens; we didn’t do that and it got much worse after I left. During my stay there the level of violence was quite moderate. So I think the decision of President Bush was courageous because it was not popular in Washington among the political classes and all of the so called “experts” said it would not work but it worked. I remain hopeful about Iraq I think we are on the right track. I believe that the provincial elections [that took place in January 2009] were extremely important particularly because this time the Sunni population participated in large numbers. We will see what will happen in the elections at the end of the year.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What problems did Syria and Iran pose during your time in Iraq?
(Bremer) I will be brief with regards to Iran. During my time [in Iraq], the Iranians were not very helpful but they also were not very active. From time to time we found elements of the Revolutionary Guards operating inside Iraq and we found elements of the [Iranian] ministry of interior and intelligence services also operating in Iraq but they kept a relatively low profile in those days in comparison to what happened after.
Syria was a big problem. We knew from the people we captured and killed that most of the people conducting the major terrorist attacks such as the suicide bombings were coming through Syria. After capturing some of them, we could figure out that they had been recruited in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Egypt and had been taken to Damascus and then transferred to camps in the eastern part of Syria. From there they’d come across mainly through Anbar but also through the north through Mosul. Nothing happens in Syria that the government doesn’t know about; it is a very tightly-run country.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think the Syrian government knew about this?
(Bremer) Absolutely, there is no doubt. There was nothing we could do in Baghdad from a political point of view. This is a question for the government, particularly the State department, to talk to our embassy in Damascus.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did you meet or contact the Syrians?
(Bremer) I saw some Syrian and Iranian officials; you have to remember there were very few embassies in Baghdad at that time. I did authorize Iraqi ministers to establish some commercial relations with Syrians. For example, we found that there was the possibility to purchase electricity from Syria. There was a very small oil field near the border and the idea was to send the oil to Syria and get electricity [in exchange] and I authorized that. The Iraqi minister of oil proposed to send Iraqi crude oil to be refined at an Iranian refinery, I think in Bandar Abbas or somewhere, and in exchange Iraq would receive refiner products from Iran because, as you know, Iraq doesn’t produce gasoline and kerosene or diesel. So I authorized him to have these negotiations but as far as I know the negotiations were never completed. I was very unhappy about the role the Syrians were playing. The Iranians later became much more aggressive. I think that at that time, the Iranians were probably afraid about there being two American armies on their frontiers; one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There have been many reports about the corruption among the Iraqi officials during your time in Iraq. Some point the finger at you and say that you were involved. What is your response to this claim?
(Bremer) We knew that corruption would be a problem. We did four things to try to deal with it. First of all I established the independent Iraqi judiciary, secondly I established independent inspector general in all 25 Iraqi ministries with the budget control, not by the ministers but by the Prime Minster. Thirdly we set up a national council that still exists where many Iraqis citizen could take allegations of corruption and that council produced several hundreds cases that were taken to Iraqi courts. And finally we looked at the Board of Supreme Audit, which was an organization established in 1920, and we empowered it to conduct investigations into allegations of government corruption. Now did this stop the corruption? No it didn’t. Under Saddam Hussein corruption was practically a way of life after the UN sanctions because it was a policy of the ministries to find a way around the international laws of the UN. That’s what they were doing. Moreover, because of Saddam’s disastrous economic policy, the Iraqi middle class was destroyed so a lot of Iraqis were forced to find [illegal] ways to live. Finally, under Saddam you had businessmen who tampered with exchange rates. We understood that corruption was going to be a problem and we tried to set up mechanisms within the Iraqi government [to counter this]. We had our own inspector general and he took up some cases against people from the coalition in American courts. I don’t know what more we could have done other than setting up these organizations.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There were a number of assignation attempts on your life. Could you tell us about them?
(Bremer) There were number of attacks and assassination attempts. The security guards took steps to protect me…
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Which attack was the most dangerous?
)Bremer) We were attacked regularly in the green zone, my wake up call was usually around 4.30am when people would fire mortars and rockets and I could see them. Once my convoy was fired at and so was my helicopter.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But which attack was most dangerous?
(Bremer) I guess the most dangerous was when my convoy was attacked by a roadside bomb and small fire arms at Baghdad Airport one night. The bomb exploded about half a second or a second too late, and small weapons were being fired at the window. I think that was the most dangerous one.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) When was that?
(Bremer) December 6, 2003
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Are you planning to visit Iraq?
(Bremer) I would like to go back one day. I would like for my wife to go with me. She lived in Afghanistan for two years but she never came to Iraq. It would be nice for her to see it but I think we’ll have to wait a while.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So you haven’t set a date?
(Bremer) No, not yet.