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l. paul bremer III

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Bremer was head of the American occupation government in Iraq (the Coalition Provisional Authority, 2003-2004) following the U.S.-led invasion, until the Iraqi interim government took over in June 2004. In this interview, he discusses those early months and the struggles in building up Iraqi security forces; the factors propelling the escalating sectarian violence; and the threat posed by powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 9, 2007. Editor's Note: FRONTLINE previously interviewed Bremer for "The Lost Year in Iraq" in 2006; "Truth, War and Consequences" in 2003; and "Target America" in 2001.

When you came into the country, what was your perception of the violence? What were you concerned about?

It was pretty clear from the start that you had both sectarian tensions between the Shi'a and the Sunnis and potentially ethnic tensions between the Arabs and the Kurds, because that's the complexity that is Iraq -- not to mention we also had Christians and Turkomen and a variety of other groups that we had to be concerned about.

The fundamental strategic point was that the Sunnis, who had run Iraq for centuries, under the Turks first and then under the British and on their own under the Baathists, were effectively no longer in power. So we knew from the start that one of the key questions was going to be [how] to continue to have the Shi'a support the new Iraq, which was very important to us, while trying to engage the Sunnis in showing them that they had a role in the new Iraq.

There was very little actual sectarian violence in the beginning. There was clearly a political context for disagreement between the sects, but there was very little violence.

How did you perceive the Sunni fears?

... They were unclear as to what the new Iraq would mean for them, because they had been effectively in charge for so long, and now what was the new Iraq going to be? We worked hard with them in 2003/2004 to try to show that they had a role, to try to be sure that they were represented, for example, in the Iraqi Governing Council, in the Iraqi Cabinet, and eventually in the Iraqi Interim Government.

But how could you convince them that democracy would be a good deal for them?

Convincing any of the Iraqis about democracy was a long series of discussions. Fundamentally what lies at the heart of democracy is majority rule, but, as we kept trying to explain to both the Shi'a and the Sunnis, it does not mean majoritarianism. In other words, there must be [respect for] minority rights. Under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship there had been no concept of respecting minority rights. This was something that we really had to work with to make them understand.

To their credit, in the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution, which culminated in March 2004, all these groups came to a much better understanding of that fact, that majoritarianism is not democracy. Democracy is about majority rule, but respect for minority rights.

Describe who the major players were on the Shi'a side.

To us the key Shi'a player was not an Iraqi. He was an Iranian: Ayatollah [Ali al-]Sistani. Ayatollah Sistani had encouraged, and continued to encourage throughout the time we were there, the Shi'a population, which is probably 60 percent of Iraq, to cooperate with the coalition. That was a very important, fundamental factor that would color basically everything that happened during the 14 months we were there.

I felt right from the start that it was a mistake to put Islamists into the Ministry of Interior. I was worried about what the Islamists would do in that very important ministry, which controlled the police.

The key Iraqi Shi'a players you could divide into effectively a couple of categories. There were Islamic Shi'a parties, of which there were two major ones: SCIRI [Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq] and Dawa. The two leaders of the Islamic parties were, respectively, in SCIRI, Abdul Aziz [al-]Hakim, who was from a very important family in Najaf, the holy city, and Dr. Ibrahim [al-]Jaafari, who was the head of Dawa.

There also were secular Shi'as who were less Islamic -- who were, of course, still Muslims, but not Islamist -- including [Interim Prime Minister] Ayad Allawi, [Iraqi National Congress founder] Ahmad Chalabi and others.

You didn't mention [radical Shi'ite cleric] Moqtada al-Sadr.

Moqtada al-Sadr became a very clear problem. ... Before I was even selected to go over there, he had been involved in the murder of a highly respected ayatollah, Ayatollah [Abdul Majid al-]Khoei, who had just returned to the country [after] liberation. An Iraqi judge had investigated the murder and issued an arrest warrant for Moqtada al-Sadr. We learned about this when the arrest warrant was issued, which I think was in late July of 2003. I urged my government and the coalition to allow the Iraqi police to exercise this warrant, to arrest him for murder, and I was unable to persuade the coalition to do that. I think it was a mistake, because at that point Moqtada basically had fewer than 200 followers. It was not an important militia at that time at all.

But why did you think it was important to go after Sadr, or to encourage the Iraqis to go after him?

Under Saddam Hussein, it was the rule of one man. He simply brushed aside any law he didn't like. He set up extralegal courts; he set up extralegal prisons; he killed people. We wanted to establish that the rule of law means that people are subject to the law, ... and we thought it was important that the Iraqi judge who had gone to the trouble of this investigation, at some risk to himself, and had issued an arrest warrant should be allowed to exercise the warrant.

What kind of threat was Moqtada al-Sadr?

I had a very able senior American diplomat who was assigned to the region where Moqtada was active, in Najaf, who came to know Moqtada and watched him. He said that basically this was an anti-democratic Islamist extremist. He went through his analysis with him and persuaded me that he was a danger. But the initial problem was an arrest warrant. It soon became apparent, after we did not move on Moqtada, that, in fact, this analysis was right. He was basically an extremist and a very radical man.

And who resisted?

Well, we had resistance from the American military and some pushback as well from the Department of Defense. We were unable to move in August. In October, Moqtada's forces killed some American soldiers in Najaf and in Karbala, the other holy city. I again encouraged us to allow the Iraqis to exercise the arrest warrant; I was unable to. This happened again in March. It happened again in April. It was a constant battle. And of course every time we did not move against Moqtada, he was able to use the time to collect money, because he was controlling some of the collections at the mosques and using the money to hire more and more people into his Mahdi Army, as he called it, so that he grew from a force of probably fewer than 200 in the summer of 2003 to several thousand by the spring of 2004.

And what was the argument that you got back from the Defense Department as to why you shouldn't go after him?

Well, it was very unclear at the start what exactly the problem was in August of 2003. I think part of the problem was that the area where Moqtada was active, the holy cities, was inside the area of operation of the American Marine Division that was there. The American Marines were getting ready to redeploy out of Iraq. They'd finished their tour, and I think they were looking at their last few weeks and thought this could cause a real problem if we go after this guy.

In October, we were in the middle of the first of the real upticks of the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle. The military was focused very much on trying to deal with that insurgency. ... Meanwhile Moqtada was building up the Mahdi Army. It was another example of the fact that we simply didn't have enough troops on the ground to deal with the various problems we were facing.

And you had specific conversations with Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld about al-Sadr?

I had conversations with Secretary Rumsfeld and with the commanders on the ground and with the commanders at CENTCOM and so forth. And my colleagues had conversations. It wasn't just me.

And they told you, "We just don't have the resources to go after him, to take this on at this point."

There were three or four different occasions where this came up, and there were different reasons for each. I think in August it was more a question of the upcoming rotation, which I could understand. You didn't want to have a major confrontation in the last two weeks of your deployment there. On the other hand, I felt very strongly that we had a fundamental responsibility for security in Iraq and that it was our job to show the Iraqi people that we were prepared to protect them. ...

What difference would it have made, in your view, had you taken him and put him behind bars?

I think it would have made a very substantial difference if we had moved against Moqtada almost any time in 2003, ... because the Mahdi Army, his militia, is really the fundamental problem today in Iraq. The reason he's able to get people to join his militia is that he had a lot of money. He was able to intimidate people, he was able to hire people, and he was able to make the argument that the coalition forces and the Iraqi forces have not protected the Shi'a from the Al Qaeda terrorist car bombings and attacks. If he had been taken out of the picture, the whole militia situation would be, in my view, considerably less complicated.

Why were he and his militia seen as a threat when the Badr Organization was not seen as a threat?

The Badr Organization -- it was known then as the Badr Corps -- was the militia of the SCIRI. They were basically cooperating with us. ... They made it pretty clear they were not out to fight the coalition. We had very few problems with [them] even though they were substantially larger than Moqtada's, at least through 2003. Probably by 2004, Moqtada's was about the same size.

Wasn't the Badr Organization controlling cities in southern Iraq?

Controlling cities is perhaps too strong a word. They certainly were very powerful in Diwaniya, in Nasiriya, which are towns in the Shi'a south. But controlling them I think would go too far. We had elections in some of those places where Badr people were in fact not elected. We had other elections where they were elected. But they were not out attacking coalition forces and killing them. They were not doing what Moqtada was doing.

It's important to remember what Moqtada does and what he did. Moqtada set up his own so-called courts, which held so-called trials. He threw people into prisons where they were tortured. We had firsthand testimony of men being tortured in those prisons, women being raped. He conducted ethnic cleansing on a town in Qadisiya province in the south in March of 2004. These were things he learned from Saddam Hussein. This is quite different from any of the problems we had with any of the other militia. Really there were only the Kurdish militia and the Badr Organization. The Badr Organization was not doing those things.

Was the Badr Organization conducting revenge killings on Sunnis?

During the 14 months that I was in Iraq, we had fewer than 100 revenge killings confirmed throughout the country. Those ones that we were able to confirm tended to be Shi'a killing people who they thought or they knew had cooperated with Saddam's dictatorship. But there were fewer than 100 of these. It was simply not a major issue during the time the coalition was there.

During this period of time you're worried about Moqtada on one side and a rising insurgency on the other. When does that first get your attention?

... The insurgency itself really started I think rearing its head in October 2003. ... We had a big uptick in attacks on coalition forces, particularly in the Sunni areas in the west, particularly in Anbar province. ... We had attacks on police stations. ...

Did you begin to recognize a pattern of going after the Iraqi forces that you were trying to train up?

Sure. And we anticipated that that would be a problem. And as we know subsequently from [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi's statements -- the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq -- he intentionally targeted Iraqi security forces.

And you started to see this in the fall.

Started to see it in the fall of 2003, mostly in the Sunni Triangle, as I remember.

What was your assessment of that early police training effort that you were making under [Interim Interior Minister and former New York City Police Commissioner] Bernie Kerik?

We knew that getting a professional police was going to be one of our top priorities. Within a month of being there I met with the head of Jordanian intelligence, at [King Abdullah's] request, to talk about possible help from Jordan in training the police. I met with the king and discussed it with him in late June.

We called the Iraqi police back, and Kerik's assessment was, first of all, that most of the police, probably 50 percent of them, were going to have to be washed out eventually, because they were corrupt or illiterate or crooked or cruel. He told me that it was going to take six years to train an adequate police force for Iraq if we did the training inside Iraq because all of the police training facilities and most of the police stations had been looted during the immediate aftermath of liberation. I said: "Well, we don't have six years. We've got to do it in two years. How can we do that?" And they came up with a plan to train the police at an army base in Hungary, but even that was going to cost us $750 million a year, which we didn't have. ... And then the Hungarians basically decided they wouldn't do the training. So we switched to take up the king's offer to do the training in Jordan. It was at that time funded through that supplemental budget that we had gotten through Congress. I think more than $5 billion we had put in for police training. It was the largest police training program in world history. It was of a scale enormously bigger than anything that had been done before.

There was an urgency to get police onto the streets. But my concern was we had to get professional police onto the streets. We had a lot of friction. I have described publicly the friction with our military, which was trying to simply get 18-year-olds, give them an AK-47, three days of training, slap a badge on his shoulder, and say, "You're now a policeman." There was an overestimation of the capability of these young kids to be professional police, in my [opinion].

So there was pressure to get the numbers up.

There was a lot of pressure to get the numbers up.

And that was coming from?

Well, it was coming from the military and from the Pentagon. It started really very strongly in September of '03.

And at the same time there is an added urgency because your police stations are under constant attack from the insurgents.

Well, the remarkable thing about the attacks on the police, both the attacks by insurgents and attacks by Al Qaeda, was how many Iraqi men nonetheless continued to volunteer to become policemen. Their courage was extraordinary. I remember one attack on a police recruiting station where there were men lined up to sign up to become policemen. There was a car bomb that killed 30 or 40 of these men, and the next day 250 men lined up to join the police.

But there was friction between you and Secretary Rumsfeld over the speed and the length of training, getting the numbers up.

I think the American military overestimated the capability of the security forces in general. ... I raised with Secretary Rumsfeld a number of times my concern that we needed to build up the Iraqi forces, but that they had to be professional.

This pressure continued through early 2004 from the military to move faster, and in my view to underestimate how hard it was to get professional security forces -- which, of course, proved to be true, because in the spring of 2004 these forces essentially collapsed when we had the major uprising.

So ... numbers over quality?

Certainly was my feeling that we were pushing too hard to simply build up the numbers without watching the quality. My senior adviser for police affairs after Kerik left was British, Yorkshire Chief Constable Doug Brand. He said to me: "It's a complete phony. They're going in, grabbing guys off the street and just making them policemen." He said, "They're not going to be professional police." This was from a man with 30 years' experience in the police force. ...

Were they cutting and running? They were staying in the station? I'm just trying to get some sense of what you were seeing on the ground, what your advisers were telling you.

Here's the problem. Under Saddam the police were not really professionals in the sense that we would understand. For example, policemen did not patrol; they sat in the police stations. If you had a crime to report, it was your job to get to the police station and report it. ... We had MPs embedded with some of the police stations in Baghdad, and they were basically trying to teach the Iraqi police, you know, to be a good policeman, you've got to get [out] and around. ...

In December of '03, [Corporation expert and adviser to the CPA] David Gompert begins an initiative under your direction. What was the motivation there?

Well, he was helping me on broad national security issues, in particular building up the national security structure of the eventual Iraqi government. There were two things to do. We needed to establish an Iraqi military chain of command for the armed forces; we needed a minister of defense and a ministerial committee to organize national security.

Secondly, we needed to get at the question of the militia. What were we going to do about the militia? I had said from the beginning that in a modern country, the state has to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which means that if you're not working for the state organization -- the Army, National Guard, the police -- [and] running a militia, it's got to be illegal.

We had effectively three options: We could ignore them, but I felt that was dangerous; we could combat them, but we already pretty much had our hands full with the insurgency and the terrorists; or we could try to negotiate some kind of a program to reintegrate these militia into society. That's the option we chose.

And why was the Mahdi Army left out of that effort?

We started working with the major militias at that time. Really there were effectively three large militia: There were two Kurdish militia -- one under [Jalal] Talabani, one under [Massoud] Barzani -- and the Badr Corps, as it was then called. Those were the major ones. Then there were I think maybe another five or six smaller ones. I don't remember the total number. Gompert was basically negotiating over those. The Mahdi Army was basically fighting us. It was a whole different situation from the ones we were talking to, who were effectively cooperating with us. Indeed, the peshmerga [Kurdish freedom fighters] had fought with us.

But didn't it make it all the more important, therefore, to strike some kind of a deal with Sadr's militia?

There was no deal to be made with him. There's no deal to be made with him today.

Was it considered?

No. I don't think we had long discussions about negotiating with him. The question was whether we were going to allow the Iraqis to carry out their arrest warrant against him.

So we get to April of '04. It's the first big test for the Iraqi forces. What happens?

The Iraqi forces by and large collapsed. We had police units, in the south in particular, simply go AWOL. We had units of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps [ICDC], half of them not show up for duty in places in the west and in the south. We even had the first two battalions of the Iraqi army, which had been trained then, come out of training and refuse to go into the line in the battle around Fallujah. It was a very serious problem, because we found that these forces that we had been working with were not prepared to work with us to restore order.

Were you surprised?

Since I had been warning about not overestimating their capabilities, I can't say I was that surprised. I was deeply disappointed.

Why did they collapse?

If you look at the police anyway, the problem was that we had moved too fast to put untrained young Iraqi men into the police force without giving them professional training. By that time we had several thousand who had been through the professional course in Jordan, but even they had not yet had the required six months on-the-job training after they came back.

Secondly, if you looked at the Iraqi Civil Defense Force, ... it was locally recruited, province by province, town by town. I had set out as an objective when we started building up the Civil Defense Force that we would accept members from the various militia into the organizations, provided they were not criminals. We would do a background check. But we would not accept units. In other words, you couldn't show up with 100 guys and say, "I've got a company here that wants to join the Civil Defense Force." We would accept them only as individuals. It was quite clear that in some cases, our military officers who were in charge of training these Civil Defense Forces in fact were allowing people to come in as units, so that some of those units really retained the coloration of militia. I think that was a second problem.

And of course there's the big problem about how much training they had and the question about what kinds of people were there, in both the police and the ICDC.

When you had whole units just refuse to fight, was that because they maintained a loyalty [to the militia]? What was the problem?

Well, let's be careful in terms of [how we state] the problem. In the Civil Defense Force, the main problem was absenteeism, which reached 50 percent in some of the units. It wasn't that they refused to fight; they just didn't come to work. That was a force like a normal National Guard, where the people were not in barracks. They were at home; they came to work with their weapon. And they just didn't come to work. So it was a question of them just not showing up. Whether they wanted to fight or not, we didn't know.

Where there was a problem of the not wanting to go into the line and fight was the first two battalions of the Iraqi army. Now, the argument that was made by the Iraqis was that they felt it was important that there be a unified Iraqi military chain of command. They were operating on coalition command, not under Iraqi command. ...

So they didn't want to respond to coalition orders.

Well, that was one of the reasons that was given by the American military folks who were training. And I understood the problem. It was true. We wanted to have an Iraqi military chain of command.

But when you described the militia infiltration as whole units allowed to come in, you're talking ICDC and police?

Right.

Did that contribute not to AWOL problems, but problems of simply not [being] willing to go fight against their allies in the militia?

I just don't know. ... I think this infiltration by the militia into security forces, particularly the police and, as it then was, ICDC, subsequently became a problem. But if one is talking about what we knew in April and May of 2004, I would say we didn't have enough detail to know.

And so when you saw this absenteeism, units AWOL, army units refusing to take orders, what was your response?

My response was to reiterate my view that we didn't have enough troops in Iraq, because we had been counting on the Iraqi forces' building up to allow us to remove or at least reduce our force.

It was at this point that I made another recommendation for additional troops in Iraq. ... I spoke to the national security adviser and deputy national security adviser, and I sent a memo to the secretary of defense saying I thought we needed more troops.

And the response was?

The secretary of defense has subsequently said what he did: He put my recommendation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who thought they had enough troops. But when I looked at it from the ground in April and May of 2004, we were finding that the Iraqi forces were not supporting us.

We found that some of our coalition allies were not willing to deal with the Mahdi Army in the south, so we had to redeploy an entire American division from Baghdad to the south to deal with the Mahdi Army. We found attacks on our convoys were reaching such a level that it looked like I was going to have to impose food rationing on the Coalition Provisional Authority because we couldn't get food. We found that units in the armed forces were not getting their ammunition through. We basically were trying to cover an awful lot of bases, and we were stretched very thin.

So you're really in crisis mode at that point. Your supply chain has been cut off.

April 2004 was the fundamental crisis of the coalition.

And at that point there's an assessment that you need to revamp under new leadership. The new training program under Gen. [David] Petraeus, how did that come about?

Well, that came about through the secretary of defense who, I think quite correctly, said, "We've got to retool this training." ... The decision was made -- I certainly supported it -- to bring back Gen. Petraeus, who had been the commander of the 101st Division in the north, to really focus on a different way of training the Iraqi army. ...

In the early spring of 2004 there was a new round of confrontations with Moqtada. Can you talk about that?

In February of 2004, Moqtada's forces kidnapped a couple of Iraqi policemen and an Iraqi translator who had been working for the Coalition Provisional Authority. The translator was subsequently released and told us he'd had both of his legs broken by Moqtada's people as a form of torture. We learned in March that he was running extralegal courts that he'd set up and imprisoning people. Again, one of the people who had been in prison escaped and told us that he'd been tortured there and had heard other people being tortured. We subsequently had a woman come out of these prisons saying she'd been raped, and other women were being raped there. In other words, he was following Saddam Hussein's pattern.

In the first two weeks of March or so, we learned that a group of his followers had gone into a town in Qadisiya province in the south, where apparently there had been gypsies living, and had killed people -- chased them off, destroyed the town, taken 18 men prisoner. In about the same time, in one of his Friday sermons, Moqtada praised the terrorists who had conducted the attack on Sept. 11 in the United States, and ended his sermon with a repeated "Death to America, death to the Americans, death to Israel, death to the Americans." He subsequently printed his sermon in his newspaper. My legal counsel told me that this was a clear incitement to violence. It was against the law to incite people to kill Americans, and it potentially endangered American military men and civilians. Therefore, we decided to suspend publication of the paper, which was within our power.

At about the same time we had the incident which led to real problems in Fallujah, where some American contractors were attacked, burned, their bodies dismembered and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. The American forces, which were the Marines at that time, basically decided they had to try to control the situation in Fallujah. By way of background, we'd been in and out of Fallujah probably half a dozen times in the previous year, and we'd never really established law and order in Fallujah.

Moqtada chose this time to rise up as well and attacked American forces, Polish forces, Spanish forces in Najaf. He took over a provincial capital. He attacked the CPA office in Hillah. He attacked in Kufa. There was a major, major uprising throughout the south -- Diwaniya, Nasiriya. So we had in effect two crises at the same time: a major uprising by Moqtada's Mahdi Army and a real problem in Fallujah.

What was your counsel then?

My counsel then was that we had to deal with both of these crises. Moqtada quite cleverly put himself inside a mosque in Kufa, which is a sister city to Najaf, and basically camped out there with lots of followers around him. So actually getting to Moqtada was quite clearly going to be very difficult. I find it hard to imagine the circumstances under which I would recommend to the president that we use American forces to attack this mosque to capture Moqtada al-Sadr.

It was a very important mosque.

It is a very important mosque. So we instead adopted a strategy of going after his people everywhere we could find them -- going after their offices; going after the police stations they'd taken over; retaking the capital of al-Kut province that he had taken over; reasserting control in Karbala and in Najaf; and at the same time dealing with the problem of trying to establish law and order in Fallujah.

How did Moqtada differ then in terms of popularity and strength compared to August or October of '03?

It's hard to judge how he differed in popularity. In strength he certainly by now had thousands of supporters. ...

What did he represent? How did he attract so many supporters?

Well, you have to go a bit into the family history. He comes from one of the highly respected Najaf families. ... He is a Sayyid, descendant of the prophet, which is why he wears a black turban, although he has apparently very little, if not no, theological education. But nonetheless, he has a family name, so he had, first of all, an ability to invoke his name and to use that as a means of getting support.

Secondly, he appealed to the Shi'a underclass, the people who had been downtrodden, particularly by the Sunnis, for decades, even centuries. And in particular, he had a base of operation not just in Najaf and Kufa, the holy cities, but in Sadr City, which was a very heavily Shi'a neighborhood in Baghdad, about probably a third of the 6 million people in Baghdad. So he was able to appeal to these people.

He was able to spread a lot of money around and hire basically what were effectively criminals. People sometimes forget that one of the things Saddam did before the war was open up all his prisons and let all the prisoners go. The estimate of my associates when I got to Baghdad in May of '03 was that there were something [like] between 80,000 and 120,000 convicted criminals let loose by Saddam. So these people are around and available for hire, and some of those were basically hired by Moqtada.

You had pushed in August and October [2003] for his arrest, but in April you felt that it was unwise.

By April of 2004, we had a practical problem, which was he was holed up in a mosque, and there was no way that we or the Iraqi police were going to arrest him without attacking the mosque. That just was, it seemed to me, not something we could possibly do. ...

So the opportunity to get him was long past.

Well, I thought it was certainly past at that time. Now, my view at that time, as I expressed it to our government and to the Iraqi government as well, was that sooner or later somebody's going to have to deal with Moqtada, but it would be better if it were an Iraqi government that made the decision, not the coalition that made the decision, because of the sensitivity, particularly given the fact that he had the capability of hiding himself in a mosque. ... I think if we had moved against Moqtada, particularly early on in August of 2003, it would have made a substantial difference to the situation in Iraq.

What about the argument that we helped create him because we made him an outlaw. We targeted him, and that gave him a kind of credibility with the underclass that he represents.

I just don't buy the argument. This guy basically declared war on the coalition from the day after Baghdad was liberated, when he apparently, allegedly killed Ayatollah Khoei, for which he was ordered to be arrested. His newspaper already in July of 2003 was calling for Iraqis to kill other Iraqis who were cooperating with the coalition. Several of them had, in fact, been killed. He was already on a path far, far away from where the coalition and the other governments were. There were no Iraqi politicians saying this is a great guy.

Now you're getting toward the handover of power in June of '04. The Gompert plan has been moving forward, but in the meantime there's been a new militia forming, the Mahdi Army. What were your hopes and fears around the militia issue as you got ready to turn over power?

The first point is that the Iraqi Constitution, which the Iraqis had written, explicitly said that militia were illegal. So Gompert had organized a series of negotiations in which he came up with a plan, which was then put into effect by an order I signed in early June of 2004, for the transition and reintegration of these militia back into Iraqi society. It set up an Iraqi commission to oversee this process under the chairmanship of the Iraqi minister of interior.

Our view was that it was very important to carry out this program. We knew it would take time. I think the timetable that we set out was 18 months to two years for these militia gradually to be either integrated into the Iraqi forces, retired or re-educated so they could be reintegrated in society. Those kinds of programs take time, and they take a lot of effort. Gompert and I, as I recall, briefed the Iraqi prime minister, Allawi, on the program and encouraged him and our government to focus on the need to carry out this program in the months ahead. ...

And what happened with implementation?

I understand that not a lot happened. I think the Iraqi government, and perhaps ours, did not really focus hard on implementing. Now, it would have been difficult, but I think there should have been probably more focus on it, more pressure to actually implement the program. ... There was not enough follow-through.

In retrospect, how important or how significant was that opportunity?

... I think we left a program in place that had a fair chance of succeeding. ... What difference would it have made? I think the bigger difference would have been dealing with Moqtada earlier on. But it certainly would have made a difference if we'd pushed hard to implement afterward. ...

Let's talk about CPA Order 71 in April 2004 that decentralized the police force. One criticism that's made of it is that since there was no central control of the police, your police captain in the provinces could have his buddies in, his Shi'a buddies or his Sunni buddies, and they could form their own little gang.

That's not a familiar argument to me. Sounds like it's ex post facto. I don't even know how you would analyze whether that's true.

You didn't remember the controversy over that order?

No. I know there was discussion about it as there was on everything. There was always discussion about how much centralization, decentralization, there was. We had the broad political objective of trying to reduce Baghdad's domination of the country's life.

Were you in favor of that? I know there was a kind of an ideological component to that.

No, it wasn't ideological; it was purely political. It was quite practical. Baghdad had dominated Iraq's life for 1,000 years, too much dominated it. If you're going to have a stable rule of law, democratic organization of the country, it more likely is going to be decentralized and federalized, and that's the direction we went. There were a lot of arguments back and forth on both sides on the police question, should you have a centralized control of the police? But then there was a whole question about how would that chain of command actually work? We don't have it in this country. In most countries, the municipal police are pretty much on their own. The New York City police doesn't take command from somebody in Washington.

There are some that say, though, that the decentralization of the police sped the formation of partisan militias in the provinces.

I don't think it did. I think it was already under way, because as I have said, I think the problem we had was that we were not training professional police in the provinces, and that the military commanders were under such pressure to produce numbers of police that they were just taking people in, including taking units from militia, sort of intact platoons and company-level units in. I think that was more important than the order itself. ...

Sistani and Sadr: What was the relationship there?

Sistani, of course, as the leader of the Shi'a world, not just in Iraq but in the world, is probably the most respected religious leader in the country. Sadr came from a family which was one of the important families in Najaf, so Sistani had to have respect for the family. But I got the impression in my communications with Sistani and with people who talked to Sistani that he considered Sadr to be ill-educated and unmannered. One friend came to me and told me about a time when Moqtada al-Sadr showed up at Sistani's door in Najaf and demanded to see him, and Sistani didn't go out. He sent his son out there and was subjected to terrible abuse and obscenities and rage by Moqtada. So he considered him to be dangerous and uneducated.

And what help did you get from Sistani in terms of going after Moqtada?

Sistani refuses to see anybody from the coalition. He still refuses to see anyone from the American government. But I had several channels of communications with him, and probably had 40 or 50 exchanges with him during the 14 months I was there. The impression I got was, first of all, he was actually scared of Moqtada al-Sadr. In fact, I was told by a friend who had seen him, he was really terrified that Moqtada would just show up one day with 400 or 500 guys on this little narrow street where he lived in Najaf and kill him. At one point he said, "Look, just make him go away."

He sent me a message -- this was in October of 2003: "I'd be happier if he just wasn't here." Now, that could have meant exile into Iran; it could have meant "Kill him." I don't know what it meant, but it was "Just get him get him out of here."...

There's this criticism out there that I've heard from a number of places that the sectarian problems in Iraq all stem from you imposing a quota when you set up the Interim Governing Council. I heard from a number of sources that you put undue emphasis on quotas, on Sunnis, Shi'as, Kurds, in the Governing Council, and that set in motion what we now have today, which is a civil war.

Well, I reject that criticism flat out. First of all, what were we trying to accomplish? The guidance that I got was we needed to try to get a representative group of Iraqis into the government as quickly as we could, and representative group meant you had to look at what is Iraq. Iraq is a majority Shi'a country. Nobody knows precise numbers, by the way, because there's been no reliable census since 1957, but the Shi'a are a majority. The Sunnis and Kurds [are] probably each somewhere around 20 percent, and then you have Christians, Turkomen, Yazidis; you have a variety of other people.

The Shi'a made it very clear when we discussed the government that we were going to appoint in the summer of 2003, that they insisted, and Sistani insisted, that they should be a majority. Since they were the majority of the country, they had to be a majority. Now, once that statement was made that they had to be a majority, other things follow consequently. So the Kurds would say, "Well, if they're going to be a majority, we have to be represented fairly as well, and we're 20 percent." So you wind up with basically the Iraqis saying, "This is how the government needs to be structured."

Sistani had issued an order shortly after liberation that the Shi'a, 60 percent of the population, should cooperate with the coalition. This was not an easy thing to say to them, because you recall that after the 1991 war, our government encouraged the Shi'a to rise up against Saddam Hussein, and then we basically left them to Saddam's devices. He killed something [like] between 200,000 and 300,000 Shi'a men, women and children.

So the Shi'a were suspicious about the coalition, and particularly about America's intentions. So it was very important that Sistani had ordered the Shi'a to cooperate with us, and his message was also very clear: They had to be a majority of whatever government we put in place. ...

After you leave, there's an election in January of '05. The Shi'a take control of the country. What were your thoughts? What were your feelings? What was going through your head at that time as you saw those developments?

Well, two things. First, I think it was a remarkable thing that they were able to hold the election. Of course they consequently had two more elections, which is quite something for a country at war. And just as an aside, I find it very distasteful, these Americans who now say, "Well, you know, democracy can't ever work in Iraq." Well, in fact they've got a democracy; that's an elected government.

I felt right from the start that it was a mistake to put Islamists into the Ministry of Interior. I insisted in the first cabinet that I appointed in September of 2003 that there would be no Islamists in the Ministry of Interior or in the Ministry of Education, and I stuck with that. In the Interim Government, we appointed a Sunni to the Ministry of Interior. So when an Islamist was put there in the Jaafari government a year later, I thought it was a mistake.

Why?

Because he was an Islamist, and I was worried about what the Islamists would do in that very important ministry, which controlled the police.

But they take power. They have the right.

No, I didn't say they didn't have the right. I just said I thought it was a mistake. It's an elected government. They can do whatever they want to do.

Well, this is where the argument comes in that democracy was not a good idea.

Well, look, that's a silly argument. You could probably find a member of the American Cabinet who people say shouldn't be in office. Does that mean that we shouldn't have a democracy? ...

I'm just giving air to that view that they were not ready for democracy.

To say that they were not ready for democracy because they made a single mistake in an appointment of a minister is to misunderstand democracy. Democracy is not about making every single decision the correct way. Nobody does that. Millions of Iraqis went to the polls at a time when the terrorists said: "If you vote, you die. We will kill you." And they went and elected a government. They then chose their prime minister, who chose his cabinet through an elaborate negotiation, which took three months. None of this disproves the case for democracy. It may say that it was a mistake to put an Islamist in the Ministry of Interior. I agree; I think it was a mistake, but it was their mistake.

What was the consequence of putting an Islamist in the job of minister of the interior?

The apparent consequence, from what I read and understand, is that either through incompetence or malice, that minister allowed the Ministry of Interior to kind of become a Shi'a-dominated institution, where people went out and retaliated against Sunnis. They seem to have run interrogation centers, maybe even tortured people. That's the consequence. And of course, that then exacerbates the tension between the Sunnis and the Shi'a.

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posted april 17, 2007

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