View Full Version : Bremer recalls chaos, hope discovered in Iraq

01-15-06, 07:45 AM
Bremer recalls chaos, hope discovered in Iraq
By Matthew Strozier
Staff Writer

January 15, 2006

At his computer in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer's screen saver was a winter scene in New England, reminding him of the joys of skiing and his childhood in New Canaan.

But he was a long way from all that.

"It's hard to imagine a place more different than the peaceful life of New Canaan and Fairfield County, with its green meadows and snow in the winters, than Baghdad, with the temperatures going to 140 in the summer and dust everywhere," Bremer said in an interview last week.

Bremer, 64, who is known as Jerry, spent a little more than a year as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority until sovereignty was transferred to Iraqis on June 28, 2004. His new book, "My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope," recounts his efforts to establish a new Iraqi nation from the rubble of war.

The book, published by Simon & Schuster, has garnered headlines since its release Monday -- particularly Bremer's revelation that he repeatedly sought more American troops for Iraq. He will speak at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in New Canaan at St. Luke's School. The event was moved from the library to accommodate the expected crowd.

Bremer says Americans should understand that the country did "a great and noble thing by liberating Iraq," but be realistic about the future. "It was hard, and it takes time. And we need to be patient."

Bremer lives in Chevy Chase, Md., with his wife, but he keeps close ties to New Canaan. He graduated from New Canaan Country School, and grew up the oldest of five children in a Windrow Lane home designed by the noted architect Eliot Noyes. Bremer's sister, Lyn Chivvis, still lives in town with her husband; his son lives with his family in Darien.

Growing up, Bremer said his father, who served in the Navy during World War II, inspired him to public service. "He always argued that we were lucky to have been born in America, the greatest country in the world, and I agreed with him on that."

Chivvis said that her brother and father, a staunch conservative, often talked politics together. Bremer was bred a conservative, she said. "Public service was just in his bones. He's a real patriot."

Bremer spent 23 years with the State Department, including a stint as ambassador to the Netherlands during the 1980s. In 1999, he was appointed chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism, and appointed presidential envoy to Iraq on May 6, 2003.

"When he accepted, we had no idea how dangerous it would be," Chivvis said.

In his book, Bremer describes being confronted by chaos from the moment he arrived in Baghdad aboard an Air Force C-130. It was his first visit to the city. "Baghdad was burning," he writes. "... Dark smoke columns rose in the afternoon sun."

Within minutes of arriving, he saw looters driving away with a pile of furniture on a truck. The police and army had melted away, he writes, but the 40,000 American soldiers and Marines in greater Baghdad "didn't have orders to stop the looters."

So began his first policy battle in Iraq.

As a civilian, Bremer didn't have control of the military, but a press leak by disgruntled staffers about his frustration with the lawlessness ended up prompting orders from the Pentagon "to patrol Iraq's streets more vigorously," Bremer writes. It was "a strange turn of events."

This account sets the stage for the back-and-forth with Washington throughout his 14-month tenure in Iraq. At times, Bremer's arguments won out; at other times, the bureaucracy opposed or even undermined his efforts as the Coalition Provisional Authority faced a mounting insurgency and querulous Iraqi politicians.

His biggest defeat came in his requests to increase troop levels. His pleas started before he began his tenure in Iraq and continued until just before he left.

Bremer says that Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to reduce American troop levels and cede control prematurely to Iraqi security personnel .

At times, Bremer and Rumsfeld engaged in tense exchanges about troop levels, including during a Rumsfeld visit in September 2003.

"I knew that the principal reason for his trip was to assess personally the options to reduce American forces," Bremer writes. "And I also knew that he was putting a lot of pressure on the military to find a rationale to make that happen."

It would be his job, Bremer writes, to make "the case that we needed to keep enough troops in Iraq to stabilize the country."

Bremer told Rumsfeld that security was the top priority. "Because without that we can't achieve our goals -- economic and political."

"I agree, Jerry," Bremer recalls Rumsfeld responding. "But that means moving as fast as possible on getting Iraq's security forces stood up."

"Here we go again," Bremer writes of his reaction. The Pentagon, he writes later, was preoccupied with the spring troop rotation, creating unhealthy pressures "to wish a competent Iraqi security force into being faster than possible."

Critics of Bremer say that his order to dissolve Saddam Hussein's Sunni-controlled military made it harder to maintain order, but Bremer argues that the military disbanded itself. Furthermore, Bremer writes that, after talking with Shia and Kurdish leaders, he was convinced that bringing back the army would have "set off a civil war here."

Last week, Bremer's book was welcomed by those who long contended that President Bush needed more troops in Iraq after the war.

"He was right," U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Bridgeport, a strong war supporter but a critic of how the administration handled the post-war period. "We know we didn't have enough troops. That is very clear."

Shays disagreed with Bremer's decision to disband the former Iraqi security forces. He said money would have brought them back and they could have helped quell the insurgency in Sunni-dominated areas.

But Shays said he lays blame at Rumsfeld's feet for post-war mistakes because Bremer wasn't given the necessary authority.

"I think we made some huge mistakes because of the arrogance of Mr. Rumsfeld," the congressman said. "I don't feel that he listened well and I don't think he took advice. And I don't think he listened to what Mr. Bremer was saying."

The White House did not respond directly to Bremer's book, but issued a statement saying that Bremer "served his country admirably under extremely difficult circumstances."

"President Bush relies upon a team of military and foreign policy advisers when making decisions about the conduct of the war," the statement continued. "Ambassador Bremer makes clear he is providing his perspective based on the role he was serving in at that time. President Bush appreciated the advice and commitment he made to a noble and necessary cause."

In the interview, Bremer agreed that he was just one of many advisers. The military, he said, believed that more American troops on the ground would make matters worse.

"I respected that" view, Bremer said. "I just disagreed with that. My view was that we had to establish law and order."

Policy debates aside, Bremer remains a strong supporter of the war and says Iraq will stabilize. In some cases, much more progress is happening than gets reported, he said, particularly on the economic recovery under way.

On Wednesday, Bremer is likely to find a receptive audience in New Canaan, which is solidly Republican. But even in New Canaan, there was skepticism about the reasons for war and concern about where Iraq is headed, said the Rev. Gary Wilburn of the First Presbyterian Church. Wilburn got his first standing ovation in November 2002 after a sermon denouncing a looming pre-emptive strike against Iraq.

"I think there is a growing concern, not just with Democrats and independents, but with a number of Republicans that this is not the American dream that they want or they know to be American -- that the only superpower is the war horse of the world," he said.

Bremer said he remains optimistic about Iraq, and that the United States removed Saddam, a tyrant who, among other things, governed ruthlessly with the help of a political party modeled on the Nazis.

"There obviously are going to be problems ahead," he said. "There will be bumps in the road. It is not going to be easy. But it never is in a situation like this."