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April 20, 2007
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Transcript - April 20, 2007

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

If you are like me, you have already consumed an enormous amount of news from Iraq; but once in a while something comes along that connects dots and makes you really understand. That was the prevailing reaction of those who got to see a documentary about Iraq that won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The doc doesn't focus on the decision to go to war in Iraq. Instead, it dissects policy decisions by senior Bush administration officials who bet the future of Iraq and, it can be argued, bet the future of America's foreign relations on a flawed assumption: the expectation that it would be a relative cakewalk for the us once Saddam Hussein was toppled from power.

Mistakes were made, as the saying goes, and they are discussed in shocking detail in the documentary film, "No End in Sight." It's a cavalcade of hard-working and smart diplomats, on- the-ground military leaders and Iraqis who feel frustrated by the lack of resources and dismayed by orders they were being handed from Washington.

Among that group was Paul Hughes, a U.S. army colonel who was the head of policy in Baghdad under Jay Garner during America's first occupation team. Hughes stayed on when Paul Bremer took over and formed the coalition provisional authority. Back then, Hughes was aghast to hear a Bush official predict that in just a few months 80 percent of the us troops in Iraq would be able to go home.

HUGHES: I heard him say that in a room full of people and I turned to my colleague and said "this guy doesn't know what he's talking about... it's physically impossible."

BRANCACCIO: As part of the PBS strand of coverage this week called "America at a Crossroads" I sat down to talk with Colonel Hughes.

BRANCACCIO: Colonel Hughes, welcome.

HUGHES: Good to be here.

BRANCACCIO: We see you in the film expressing this profound skepticism that the US would be able to get its troops in and out of Iraq so quickly after the invasion. That's very easy to see now, but were you worried about being undermanned after the invasion?

HUGHES: We had done studies of our involvement in the Balkans, and we recognized that we needed many more soldiers on the ground—in the post-conflict phase—than what was being allocated to us.

The people who managed the Department of Defense didn't place much stock in military advice. And hence, things that were stated by senior officials—military officials with 35-plus years of active duty in the defense of this country, when they say, "We're gonna need a lot more soldiers than you're anticipating—" they dismissed it, because he's the old guy. He doesn't get it.

BRANCACCIO: For instance, the national security directive that puts the—management of post-invasion Iraq into the hands of the Defense Department, as opposed to say, the State Department.

HUGHES: National Security Directive 24, which established the post-war planning office within the Secretary of Defense's office. Completely took the Department of State out of the picture.

BRANCACCIO: And it's fair to say the Department of State had done some research into the challenges of—of—a post-war Iraq.

HUGHES: Yes, they had. Absolutely, for the previous year and a half to two years, they'd been conducting a project called "The Future of Iraq Studies."

And so, when I was assigned to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or what we called ORHA, under Jay Garner in the Pentagon—I tried to bring in people from the Department of State.

We did get the—the director of that study tasked over to us. He remained for four days, and then Secretary Rumsfeld told Jay that he had to fire him, send him back-

BRANCACCIO: But, also, nobody, America, certainly not Iraq wanted to have happen what happened soon after the invasion, which was, because of a—apparently a power vacuum, the destructive looting that sweeps the country. You also had not enough—US troops—available to—for instance, safeguard ammunition dumps.

HUGHES: People were getting in all over the place, stealing things, because we didn't have enough soldiers there for it.

BRANCACCIO: This affects this whole thing with improvised exploded devices that—would crop up later.

HUGHES: Absolutely. Absolutely. The IEDs began with—artillery shells that were being wired together—singularly—being detonated. And they have now progressed, as you would expect an opponent in war to do.

BRANCACCIO: So, soon after this—watershed moment for Iraq, when Saddam was toppled, the military is defeated, is this other unplanned watershed moment, the looting and the destruction, and the film makes the argument that this is—this is seed of doubt that starts to creep into the Iraqi psyche. The idea that, "Why aren't the Americans protecting us?"

RUMSFELD: The images you are seeing on TV you are seeing over and over and over. And it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase

BODINE: I think that was probably the day we lost the Iraqis

RUMSFELD: And you think, my goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?

BRANCACCIO: And then, as things evolve in Baghdad, a series of key decisions that it is argued in the film, have radically altered prospects for Iraq in their wake. Number one, big decision, stop the early formation of an Iraqi government. Was that—did you worry about that decision?

HUGHES: Absolutely, because, at that particular point in time, we had raised the bar of expectation for the Iraqi people. They were thinking, "Hey, we're gonna be able to participate in a government." This is something they had never been able to do. They didn't know exactly how to do it, but they were anticipating a new day. And then, suddenly, it stops. And—they're questioning the Americans, like, "Don't you really know what you're doing here?"

BRANCACCIO: Big decision number two, get rid of—the members of the Ba'th party from positions of responsibility in the Iraqi bureaucracy. Makes some sense, gotta get rid of the Nazis after World War II from the German government.

HUGHES: That's true. And, we had developed ministerial advisory teams for each one of the Iraqi ministries that we knew of. and the concept was, it would keep the ministry running.

If you get rid of all the Ba'athists, all of them, you've gotten rid of the technocrats, the people who really know how to make things work.

BRANCACCIO: Another major decision with huge repercussions, the decision to disband the Iraqi military, or from another point of view, make sure that the disbanded Iraqi military remains that way.

HUGHES: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: You're at the center of this.

HUGHES: It fell to me, because there wasn't anybody else there, ORHA was tapped out. We didn't have any people who could—you know, take on this responsibility.

I went out to the Ministry of Defense—because I was hoping to find somebody out there. Instead, what I found were squatters in their version of the Pentagon, civilians who had no place to live, and they were now living in the hallways of the—Ministry of Defense building.

a day or so later, a battalion commander from the 101st Airborne came in—to see me, and he said, "Hey, sir, I've gotta talk to somebody, I've got a group of Iraqi generals and colonels that want to talk to somebody from ORHA."

And they—over the course of the war, even before the war, had been removing computers and software —of personnel lists from the Ministry of Defense and storing them at their home, because they knew they were not going to win this war.
And they wanted to help reestablish the Iraqi military with the Americans.

BRANCACCIO: So, when you connected to these guys, with this treasure trove of information about the Iraqi military, you saw that as a—as an important resource.

HUGHES: Absolutely. And I took intelligence officials with me to meet with these men. And these guys were willing to—to explain or provide information on anything that they could.

They were saying to me, "Colonel Paul, Baghdad's burning. You tell me, and I can have 10,000 military police ready for you next week."

I took that back, nothing ever became of it.
We were also going to—take some Iraqi units and let them become the labor force for reconstructing Iraq. If you needed the rubble from a bridge cleared, they would do that. And there on the news one morning was the announcement that the Iraqi army had been disbanded and abolished by—Ambassador Bremer.

You want to talk about feeling like the ugly American, that's what I was. You know, here I was, trying to work with these men, to help them rebuild their country, to—to bring their soldiers under some semblance of control. And instead, they're told they're not worth the time.

BRANCACCIO: Walter Slocombe, who is the senior adviser for national security and defense at the Pentagon in this film, repeatedly cast doubt on this idea that you had come up with this helpful list of—former members of the Iraqi Armed Services that might be enlisted to—help in the future—rebuilding of Iraq.

SLOCOMBE: Hughes believed that he had an opening to some Iraqi officers who would have been prepared to reconstitute units. I don't...

CHF: He already had obtained registration statements from 137,000 .

SLOCOMBE: He hadn't done that. He may have... he may have gotten... 'cause nobody could have gotten statements from 137,000 anybody for anything in the chaos that prevailed at that point.

HUGHES: They had a courier system set up that was running around the metropolitan area of Baghdad, of Mosul, of Basra, and Kirkuk.

SLOCOMBE: And I don't unders... I mean... I...Given how difficult it was to do anything just operationally, organizationally, nobody had 137,000.

HUGHES: They did. In fact, Slocombe's first staffer to come to—to Iraq, came back with me from Washington D.C., And I drove him to Baghdad. And I had him meet with these officers. And he realized there had been a big mistake. I handed him the printouts. I handed him the computer disks, and I said, "Here you go, you're in charge of this now. You handle it." And he got on the phone right away and told Mr. Slocombe, "We've made a mistake. We've got to fix this."

BRANCACCIO: These are—trained military people, some of them might be armed, if they still have some guns, et cetera, at home. And you're telling them, not only you're not going to work with them, but that they're really going to be out of work.

HUGHES: Absolutely. They were gonna be out of work. And when you talk about an Arab society, where six to eight mouths depend on that soldier's income you're talking about millions of people suddenly not having a form of support. It was a decision that General Garner tried to have revisited, and—he was told by Ambassador Bremer that Bremer had his orders, and he was going to execute that. And that's it, don't—don't open it up again.

BRANCACCIO: But if you think about it, there's a line in the film that goes something like, "Overnight, rendered unemployed and therefore infuriated, are half a million armed men."

HUGHES: Yeah, five days after Bremer issued that order, we had our first attack on the—international airport highway, commonly called BIAP highway. Two American soldiers were killed, and in my mind, that's the start of insurgency.

BRANCACCIO: You know, Paul Bremer has suggested that we never really did disband the Iraqi military, they disbanded themselves.

HUGHES: It is a gross assumption on the part of the Secretary of Defense and his close staff and Ambassador Bremer to think that—because they didn't see a military force that looked like the United States Army, that they had—the Iraqis had disbanded themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth.

BRANCACCIO: What I'm hearing from you is, that you don't believe that the sectarian hatreds that have now flared in Iraq, the violence, the chaos that we now see from Iraq, was inevitable. That there were decisions made after the successful invasion that have brought us here.

HUGHES: Sectarianism, in my view, was—institutionalized by Paul Bremer, when he established the Iraqi governing counsel. And it was done on the basis of, "We need this percentage of Shia, this percentage of Sunni, this percentage of Kurds, this percentage of women, et cetera." And it was a very complex—calculation of how they built this 25 member council that—became the Iraqi governing authority.

BRANCACCIO: That's quite a statement, Colonel. I mean, you're saying that we built the seeds of a civil war, possibly?

HUGHES: I think that we did. I think that we did, because we didn't understand what we were getting into.
We accepted as proof that the administration was on the right policy course and nobody challenged it. There was no discussion before the war in the halls of Congress, any meaningful discussion about what America's interests were, and what America needed to do to protect its interests.

BRANCACCIO: Some final thoughts from col. Hughes in a few minutes but first, a young Iraqi man who appears in the "no end in sight" documentary with his identity obscured by shadow.

FEKEIKI: I don't see the end of light at the end of the tunnel, yet.

BRANCACCIO: Omar Fekeiki, worked in Iraq with American journalists. While his family remains in Baghdad, Fekeiki is now studying at the graduate school of journalism at the university of California, Berkley, his education being paid for by his Baghdad employer, the Washington post. He's chosen to come out of the shadows for this interview with now.

BRANCACCIO: Omar Fekeiki, thank you very much for coming in.

FEKEIKI: You're most welcome.

BRANCACCIO: Could you just—so I understand—you were—shrouded in darkness in the documentary, but here you are in the full—glare of our cameras. Why—did you decide to reveal yourself?

FEKEIKI: Because I regretted the decision not to be—on camera before. Hiding doesn't help anyone in Iraq. And I want—I want to help Iraq.

FEKEIKI: "I just was waiting for the war to happen because it was the only ray of hope I had to look for. And when it happened I was excited that things will move - slowly —but towards better circumstances."

FEKEIKI: It's—the only ray of hope we had was this invasion. Because we couldn't get rid of the—Saddam regime without the help of—basically the multi national forces. I don't agree with people who are saying—Saddam's—time is better or now is better. It's the same. Under Saddam we feared the government. The only enemy was the government, so we couldn't speak up. Now we fear everyone.

BRANCACCIO: Give me a sense of what it's like for—for—Iraqis, for your family, just to get by in Iraq now.

FEKEIKI: Now my family gets one—hour of electricity a day. when you go out you—you still see the images of destruction from the invasion. Because the same buildings that were destroyed during the invasion are still the same. Still destroyed. And—so they don't—they don't—I don't say my family is still living. I say—I say my family is still breathing. And that applies to—I—I—I dare say—100 percent of Iraqis in Baghdad.

USSARVAN: the ordinary people have their electricity only for 2 or 3 hours a day.

FADHIL: water comes every, like, now and then every 2 or 3 days

FEKEIKI: We spent winter shivering covered in blankets because we didn't have enough fuel to operate the heaters. That's the life we live.

BRANCACCIO: Well, she says two to three hours of electricity a day.

FEKEIKI: That was in the golden age.

BRANCACCIO: And now what do you think? Like an hour you're getting—

FEKEIKI: I—I—I talked to my family yesterday. One hour of electricity, if they get it, a day.

FEKEIKI: —to live in Iraq now means to—basically imprison yourself in your house. Because—you—the—it's—it's very dangerous to leave your house. And my brothers have jobs and they can't go to there work

They—they do it maybe once a—once a week. And that's because if they leave—my neighborhood and go to another it might be the opposite—sect of—of what my brothers are. And—that—that—that means they—there's—chances are they'll get cur—killed.

BRANCACCIO: The temptation we're talking about sectarian violence with an Iraq to say so—what are you Omar? Are you a Kurd, a Sunni, a Shiite?

FEKEIKI: I'm—I'm half Arab half Kurd. I'm secular. I don't—I don't let religion go out of my room. I have—my family is Shiites and Sunnis. So I would be killed on both sides because my first name is Sunni, so the Shiites would.. the extreme Shiites would kill me. And my last name is—Shiite, so the extreme Sunnis would kill me. And that's—that's the struggle. In fact, I—I remember one—one time I escaped death when—I was driving back from the office to my house. And—I was—stopped by a checkpoint. I didn't know if it was a real checkpoint or not. But I had to stop anyways. And they asked for my ID, and they read my first name And the guy said—"You're lucky your—your—first name is Sunni. Otherwise you would be killed right on the spot." I thanked him and—and drove away.

BRANCACCIO: You know, when you—when you note that the images of Iraqis, initially, welcoming Americans with flowers you believe is true, and then you get to the point, if you fast-forward, when the US ambassador to Iraq, Kalilzad feels that he has to send this memo to the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice saying that, "Looks what's happening. People who want to work with Americans find their lives in danger."

FEKEIKI: I—I slept—totally dressed when I went to bed every night.

BRANCACCIO: Why?

FEKEIKI: Because I didn't know when the insurgents will come pick me up. I didn't know when the Iraqi forces will come and—arrest me. And didn't know when the Americans will come to—my neighborhood and basically abduct me.

BRANCACCIO: Mr. Fekeiki, at some point, either sooner—or later, many people argue there will be a draw down of US troops from Iraq. Given what you know, given your direct experience, what do you think will happen if and when the US pulls back?

FEKEIKI: Violence will continue. Armed groups will be fighting in the streets. It's hell now; it's going to be even more.

BRANCACCIO: Omar Fekeiki, have you given up on your homeland?

FEKEIKI: I will never give up. I will never get up. But I put—50 years ahead for it to start.

BRANCACCIO: You're looking at 50 years.

FEKEIKI: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: Before you see stabilized—

FEKEIKI: Yes. Because—my generation now just gave up. People I know who left Iraq are never—gonna go back, because they don't want to go back. The generation—the—the—the generation after us will have no—education. Because education now in Iraq is just a joke. Professors are being killed, teachers are being killed. So, in 50 years, people will start realize that—we can't continue this way. And then they'll try to—they'll try to start—improving the country.

BRANCACCIO: And 50 years from now you'll be in your 70s. Does that mean you're just gonna wash your hands of your home country now?

FEKEIKI: No. I'm gonna live until I'm—I'm gonna live to be 94. and I'm gonna work and—all the—all the way—to help Iraq.

BRANCACCIO: You're gonna stay engaged somehow in Iraq.

FEKEIKI: I'm gonna go back to Iraq. I'm not gonna live outside Iraq.

BRANCACCIO: You're gonna go back. You think there'll be a point where—that it's safe enough for you to go back?

FEKEIKI: no, no, I'm—no, the—no. It—Iraq will never be safe for journalists as—not will never. Iraq will not be safe for journalists soon. But that's the story, and I'm gonna go back and tell it.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. See you next week.



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