When I was about to have this conversation with Ambassador Paul Bremer, an Iraqi-American friend whispered in my ear: “This is not just an ambassador. He is a president, who ruled Iraq for more than a year!”
In his capacity as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority after the war declared by the US President George W. Bush on the night of March 19, 2003 with the aim of overthrowing President Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, the “Kissingerian diplomat” sat face to face at the White House with the president who assigned him two important tasks: get the ball the ball running for the economy, and paving a new path for good governance in Iraq.
He went there armed with this authorization, and fit with what he learned from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and in the private sector after graduating from Yale and Harvard Universities in the United States and the Institute of Political Studies in France.
Paul Bremer holds tight many secrets. He did not make much reference to the documents of the Iraqi state and the Baath Party after the complete collapse of Saddam's rule on April 9, 2003. He jokingly told me that after he "accomplished" his mission, which began on May 9, 2003 and ended on June 28, 2004, that he paid for American lawyers “more than I earned from my work in Iraq.”
It was an opportunity to share my funny story with the former German Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Christoph Heusegen, who was previously the National Security Adviser under Chancellor Angela Merkel and is currently serving as Chair of the Munich Security Conference.
I jokingly suggested that he reveal his secrets so that I could publish them. I said: “With this, our fame will fly … but in two different ways.” The American diplomat laughed before we actually started this conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat.
Bremer sometimes revealed very important details in the long interview with him, insisting on the “correctness” of the war decision, despite the American failure to obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council. He considered that the interests of the United States take precedence over its duties in international law.
He compared the Baath Party led by Saddam to that of the German Nazi Party under Hitler. He stressed that this is the reason that prompted him to issue his two famous orders, the first was devoted to “De-Baathification” and the other focused on “dismantling” the Iraqi army, admitting that he had committed “two mistakes” in implementing them.
He stated that Bush “ended a thousand-year rule of the Sunnis” in Iraq. Bremer coordinated with the Iraqi opposition: Jalal Talabani, Masoud Barzani, Ahmed Chalabi, Ayad Allawi, Abdulaziz al-Hakim, Mohammad Bahr al-Ulumm Ghazi al-Yawer, Adnan al-Pachachi, and other influential Iraqis who are still present in “American Iraq.”
Only one person, the most important and influential person in Iraq from then until today, refused to receive Bremer or meet with him, and that is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
It is the 20th anniversary of the war in Iraq. How would you reflect now on that moment?
You know, a lot of people are talking about looking back 20 years. And so I've looked back. My bottom line is that I think it was the correct decision that Bush made to go in and remove Saddam from power. And I think secondly that despite the difficult situation that Iraqis find themselves in now, 20 years later on balance, Iraq is a better place now that Saddam is gone.
The price was so costly on the Iraqis, and on the Americans as well…
Yes, that's true. But the benefits are also very big for the Iraqis. They now can choose their own government. We in the United States are not faced with Saddam returning to get his weapons of mass destruction, which he planned to do. We know from the documents we captured after he was deposed, that he planned to resume the development of his weapons of mass destruction.
- ‘Nuclear’ Iraq and Iran -
And the region is better off? Do you believe this?
Actually, the region is better off because if Saddam had stayed in power, the region would now face, otherwise, a nuclear armed Iraq facing a nuclear armed Iran. There would be no Iranian agreement to stop nuclear program, which was done in the Obama administration. The Iranians would have to continue their nuclear (program) so the region would be much less stable, we would have two nuclear powers at least: Iran and Iraq.
And that would’ve maybe encouraged, in your opinion, Iran more to produce nuclear weapons?
When I was in Iraq, the American government intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had slowed down, if not stopped its program because they were worried. And we now know that the agreement that was reached by the Obama administration with Iran is being undermined every day by the Iranians. Now, we have a real threat of a problem there.
- UN approval -
The US failed to get a UN Security Council approval for the war. Therefore, the war was illegal. Do you see it this way, or do you have a different take?
I’ve been involved in foreign policy for 50 years. And as a general rule, it's always preferable to have broad international support. But I do not believe that the United States needs to get UN approval when American interests are at risk.
The Russians are using now what Secretary Powell showed to the Security Council to say there are weapons of mass destructions and other things in Ukraine. Nothing was there. You were in Iraq, you found nothing. Were you aware of all these circumstances?
No, I was not aware. It's important to be precise about matters here. The intelligence that suggested Saddam was actively pursuing weapons of mass destruction, apparently was not correct. But it's important to remember that it wasn't just the United States intelligence agencies that said that we were confident that he was developing these weapons, it was the French, the Germans, the British, and the Russian, all of their intelligence services agreed with the United States.
So, I think if you now say: “Well, wasn't it a mistake?” I think any American president after 9/11 - a major event and trauma to the American people, 3,000 Americans killed - including Al Gore, if he had won the election in 2000, would have looked at US intelligence, and would have said: “We have to do something about Saddam.”
Now, one final point, it is not true to say we found nothing. Charles Duelfer, who was a very able investigator, said: “Saddam has kept the plans, the people and the projects for weapons of mass destruction, and he intended to resume them.”
You’ve just said something remarkable, that the US interest is above the international law…
No, what I said was that the there is no international law that says we have to get a UN approval for defending American interests.
Then, what was the legal basis for the war?
Legal basis in the US was a presidential decision.
So President Bush was the architect of the war? You mentioned in previous interviews that this was done to overthrow not only Saddam, but to overthrow a Sunni rule that lasted a 1,000 years in Iraq. This will have deep ramifications, not only in Iraq, but also in the region.
First, the President makes the decisions. My review of the matter afterwards, long after I left Iraq, is that after the terrorist attacks of the 90s, and 9/11 attacks, any American president, Democrat or Republican, would have agreed with the intelligence that Bush was presented with. And it's interesting that if you look back the in the American Congress in both the Senate and the House by far the majority of the politicians approved of the attack on Iraq.
So, it was not a one man's decision.
The US concluded that this is something you must do
Right, I think it's fair to say that there was political consensus across the country when Bush made the decision.
Tell me if I'm wrong, let me use this term, how you as a Kissinger diplomat, I mean, you believe in realpolitik, executed a plan for the neocons in the US. How come?
I didn't execute a plan for the neocons, or oldcons, or whatever. I executed a plan under a direction from the President of the United States, who said to me: “You have two jobs: job 1 is trying to get the economy going again for the Iraqi people, and job 2 is to help the Iraqis onto a path for representative government.” Those are my two commands from the president. And those are the two things that I did.
- The President and I -
Was that just an announcement?
No, that was not an announcement. The president invited me to lunch alone with him, in his little private dining room off the Oval Office for talking. Him and me, that's all, and there we're no note-takers, there was nobody else there…
But you're aware, the president was saying a lot about the “Greater Middle East”, about other issues in relation to the Iraq invasion. The president also said publicly that this will have ramifications for probably decades, not only in Iraq, but also in the region. Twenty years later, he is proving right.
I don't think the president made the decision lightly. I think he understood that would have ramifications. I understood it would have ramifications. But I also understood his goal. His goal was to help the Iraqis recover their country economically and politically.
You replaced Jay Garner, the general appointed to rule Iraq after the invasion, soon after the fall of Saddam. How did that come about? Why did he decide to leave?
I have great respect for General Garner, I thought he did a very good job under very difficult circumstances. My understanding is that (…) somehow my name arrived on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's desk…
You don't know how?
I do know that he had it. He had a list of 12 or 14 other people. And I don't know what process he went through. Anyway, he in the end recommended me to the president.
You may have mentioned this in your book “My Year in Iraq”. Garner wanted to organize elections within 90 days after the invasion. It did not seem realistic to me. Was it realistic to you?
No, no. In my meetings with the president, and with the National Security Council, and with the Vice President, with the Secretaries of Defense and State before I left, the one clear message from the president and the others, including Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Powell was that we're going to have to take our time.
I was asked about that, and I said: “I agree it will take at a minimum a year, it might take a couple of years. It's going to take a long time, and we have to be patient.” I heard a broadcast on the radio that Garner had just told everybody he was going to appoint a government in 10 days. And I said in my book, I almost drove off the highway. I was so surprised…
You were rushed to go to Iraq. What was the best advice you received before you went?
The best advice that people gave was to focus first on trying to bring some economic benefits to the Iraqi people as quickly as you can (…) Saddam had effectively destroyed the Iraq economy anyway. When I got to Baghdad, just to give an example, in the entire country, they were producing only 300 megawatts of electricity. It's not enough to run, you know, a small village.
- From Spain to Angola -
The country was under embargo. So, this didn't happen overnight?
No. It had obviously suffered somewhat from the UN sanctions, although we learned quickly about the corruption in the Oil for Food Program. When Saddam came to power, the gross domestic product per capita in Iraq was higher than it was in Spain. The World Bank told us that in 2002, Iraq's per capita income had fallen below that of Angola. The second piece of advice to answer your question was to be sure we were talking to a broad range of Iraqis about what kind of government was possible and what kind of government they wanted.
You mentioned, of course, who you met then from the US side. Did you meet anybody from the Iraqi opposition who were here in the US?
No, I don't remember meeting anybody. I may have met one or two…
Do you know Kanan Makiya. He was critical of why the US decided to make this Coalition Provisional Authority, instead of holding elections and selecting a democratic body…
I have great respect for Mr. Makiya. The people who think there was an alternative could not tell me what it would be. There had been no census in Iraq since 1957. There was no constituent boundaries. There was no effective separation of power between the legislature and the executive. It was all a dictatorship. There was no way to hold elections in Iraq quickly.
So General Garner was wrong about this.
Garner, I think was misunderstood. He was not kept informed of the way Washington was thinking.
- Baathism and Nazism -
You went to Iraq and issued a long set of orders. The first two orders are the most important with far reaching implications, the De-Baathification and then disbanding of the Iraqi army. Why did you do that? The decisions left the country in a very bad situation.
I actually don't think either of those left Iraq in a bad situation at all. I think they were the right decisions.
But where did they come from? So the Department of State in early 2002, a year and a half before the invasion, had established a study group in Washington under a career Arabic speaking American diplomat: Brian Crocker, who ran a yearlong study called “The Future of Iraq”, in which he and his colleagues at the State Department, Defense Department, intelligence services, met with hundreds, actually maybe thousands of Iraqis, most of them obviously in exile, about what should be the future of Iraq.
And there were two conclusions of this study; the first conclusion was that there can be no place in a post-Saddam Iraq for the Baath Party. Why? Because the Baath Party was Saddam's political instrument of control and terror over his own people. The Baath Parties in the Arab world, as you very well know, were modeled on the Nazi Party. But Saddam was in power three times as long as Hitler. So, the conclusion was there can be no place in post-Saddam Iraq for a Baath Party. I was handed, literally the day before I left for Iraq, a draft order.
Handed by who?
By Doug Feith, who was the number three man in the Pentagon (served as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy) under Rumsfeld. It was completely consistent with the conclusion of the State Department's study. Feith handed me this thing and said: “We're thinking of issuing this tomorrow. A Sunday.”
I said: “Wait a minute, I want to get out and talk to some of the people who are working for Garner (in the Office for Construction and Humanitarian Assistance) for Iraq (ORHA).”
It was not issued until I got out there. Then I issued (…) the Baath directive, which was loosely modeled on the decisions that were made by America, the occupying power in Germany in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. They had a program of De-Nazification, which was across the board, anybody with anything to do with the Nazi Party could not have anything to do from the top to the bottom. In contrast, the De-Baathification that was worked by the United States government was aimed only at the top 1% of the Baath Party members.
Now, I made a mistake here in turning the implementation of the very narrow order over to the Iraqi politicians, because it then became an instrument of battle between various factions among the Iraqis, who tried to broaden the implication, to throw many more Baathists, for example teachers, out of their jobs.
What I should have done was I should have turned the implementation over to a carefully selected competent group of Iraqi judges. What I should have done, was pick a panel of five Iraqi judges and said: “You oversee the De-Baathification.” But I turned it wrongly over to the politicians, and when I heard that they were throwing hundreds, thousands of teachers out of jobs, the Minister of Education came to me. So, I had to pull back the authority. So, it was a mistake.
- Two mistakes -
And disbanding the Iraqi army, I heard one time that you made a mistake about it.
Yes and no. So, The Future of Iraq study that we discussed, also looked at the question of the Iraqi military force. Iraq's army, the modern army, which was introduced after the Second World War, played a respectable, responsible role until the Baathists and Saddam came to power.
Then the Iraqi army became the primary instrument of forceful control of the Iraqi people. And again, The Future of Iraq study said the same thing: there can be no place in post-Saddam Iraq for the army. Well, there was no army there at the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
The Pentagon, the American generals said, General John Abizaid said there is not a single unit of the Iraqi army standing to arms anywhere in Iraq. The army went home.
And that army had conducted what the UN considered a genocidal war against the Kurds in the 1980s, including the use of weapons of mass destruction at the town of Halabja in 1988. The same army, the Republican divisions were used by Saddam to put down the uprising of the Shiites in the South after the first Gulf War. Less than a week after I got the Baghdad, they found the first of the mass graves due to these mass killings, which was outside of Hilah, south of Baghdad. In a way if you said: what was the mistake? It was the choice of the verb disband.
Some American officers apparently were talking about maybe we can recall the army. When the Kurds heard that, both leaders of the Kurds, Barzani and Talabani, said to me: If you recall the Iraqi army, we will secede from Iraq.” That would bring on a civil war. The Shiites, who were cooperating with the coalition, under guidance from Ayatollah Al-Sistani also heard the same rumor, and Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abdulaziz Al-Hakim told me: “We will not cooperate if you bring back that army.”
- Democracy or civil war? -
Ambassador, you meant to build a democratic Iraq.
Instead, the country plunged into a civil war under your control. I don't know the extent of the mistakes that you were describing. But that's what happened.
No, it was not a civil war. What happened was the emergence of al-Qaeda. We know for a fact because it was written down by Zarqawi in a letter he wrote to Osama bin Laden. The intention of al-Qaeda was just to provoke a tribal war between Shiites and Sunnis. And he said that's why they had done the vicious attacks that took place, first on the UN headquarters that killed Sergio de Mello, and then a major attack on the on the mosque in Najaf on August 30, 2003, which killed several hundreds of Shiites.
So, the intention of al-Qaeda was to provoke a civil war. And you say they didn't have democracy. That's not true. They held elections, the first would be held about a year and a half after the liberation of Baghdad in early January 2005, and the Iraqis have held six elections, five national elections and one referendum to approve the Constitution. And Iraq has had six peaceful transfers of power since we left. No other Arab country can say they've done that.
- American model -
Ambassador, you mentioned several very important things, De-Baathification built on De-Nazification. This pretext is being used now by Russia in their invasion to Ukraine.
Any president, and I can say I'm sure President Bush in this case, has to consider the whatever decision he's facing in the context of its impact on the rest of American interests. And I'm sure Bush did that. And he decided, I think correctly, that we could not tolerate letting Saddam continue. And so, he took the difficult decision to invade to get rid of Saddam, which in my view, succeeded. The impact on what American policy in Bangladesh or in Ukraine might be is a separate matter.
No, that's why some Americans, including presidents, said that the Iraq war was a disaster.
I will stand by what I just said to you about the success we had politically, the success we had economically.
So, your conclusion still is that Iraq is better off?
Absolutely. Iraq is better off on any metric… The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, where did they go? Look at Tunisia today.
With the Iraqis, even under ISIS, even under all of the problems they've had, have selected their own government six times in a row.
So, you don't have good feelings about the Arab Spring?
I'm sorry, it didn't succeed. Iraq suffers now greatly from corruption. No question.
Did you model the new Iraq on the Lebanon model?
Iraq was a secular country under Saddam. When you say that the Sunnis were ruling for a thousand years, but then you pulled Iraq from the Arab neighbors to throw it into the hands of Iran?
I can only talk with confidence about the time when I was there. The Iranians were really not present.
At least, al-Hakim and other figures from the Iraqi opposition were based there.
Well, and some were in Syria, and some of them had been in London, a few had been in Germany with a couple of them in France. It was up to them to figure out what to put in the Constitution, which is what they did. And they established a federal system, not at our suggestion.
Why did you boast on several occasions that Iraq was for a thousand years ruled by the Sunnis? You have stopped that.
That was just a statement of fact.
- Syrian Baath -
It was pretty clear that the Syrian Baathist government was supporting the so-called Iraqi resistance to fight the coalition forces in Iraq. Did you try to talk to the Syrian government?
I'm not aware of any specific discussions between American officials and the Syrians. I do know that the coalition forces in Iraq were more and more concerned about the Syrian support, in particular, the infiltration of people sometimes often recruited in North Africa, particularly in Libya, and trained in Syria and then infiltrated across the border of Al-Qaim.
And Iran played a role.
During my time, there was, as I said, no evidence of the Iranians playing a role.
- Iranians got scared -
Not even what we discovered later on, and it is all over the news nowadays that they harbored some of al-Qaeda members in Iran.
This was not part of the information we had at that time. The most important was the Zarqawi letter, which we intercepted in January 2004. That was clearly established. But he was Jordanian. He wasn't Iranian.
But you worked on fighting terrorism just before, so you were fully aware of the dangers.
Oh, yes. And well Iran. Iran was designated when I was in charge of counter-terrorism in the Reagan administration, Iran was already described as a terrorist state because of the bombings that Hezbollah did in Beirut in 1983.
So, there wasn't any doubt that it was a terrorist state. But the question that I was answering was, was Iran actively meddling or doing stuff. And the answer is: I never saw any convincing information that confirmed that. But there's certainly problems in Iran.
But if you think in terms of the people in Tehran in the fall of 2003, you know, they had an American army on their eastern border and their western border. They got two armies. And it's precisely in 2003, that the intelligence community, apparently, according to what you can read in the press, concluded that Iran had stopped its active nuclear program.
While the situation was unraveling in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, you rid the Iranians of two archenemies at the borders. The Americans did them something huge. Did you meet with the Iranians?
No, there were no Iranians to talk to.
- Disagreement with Al-Sisatani -
But you didn't feel that you needed to talk to them.
The only Iranian I would like to talk to was Al-Sistani. But he wouldn't see me. That's fine. I understood. I didn't press. I didn't even really ask. I had a very good intense correspondence with Al-Sistani while I was there.
Various intermediaries. I looked at it. In 13 months, 48 exchanges with Al-Sistani.
Were they oral? Just messages?
Usually oral. Sometimes written.
So you have letters from him.
He has letters from me (laughter).
But do you have letters from him?
I have messages. He didn't put things in writing. That’s not the way somebody does at his level. But my view is that having looked at the whole question on the whole, he played a helpful role in the effort. He very much supported having elections, having the Iraqis choose their government. That was his sort of fundamental belief. And that was of course my job.
But there were periods of tension between you and him?
Given his importance in Iraq, but also in the broader region, I wanted to be sure that he understood what we were trying to do, which was to establish a political process with the Iraqis to choose their government. Here's the problem. The problem came about because Sergio de Mello, who was the UN Special Representative, went to see Al-Sistani shortly after he got to Iraq in early June of 2003.
He came and called on me. We had two meetings, one is in my office and one in his office, he went to Najaf to see Al-Sistani. I later heard from somebody who heard it from Al-Sistani in Najaf that de Mello had said to Al-Sistani that the Americans are going to write a constitution to structure the political body the way they did in Japan (through the Commander of allied forces Douglas MacArthur in 1945), which was completely wrong.
We had no intention of writing a constitution. What we intended was that the Iraqis, if they wanted a constitution, should write it, which is what in the end happened. So most of the communications with Al-Sistani from my side were directed at keeping him closely informed of our discussions, and I'm sure there were other people also, you know, in the Iraqi government were keeping him informed of our discussions about what we wanted, and trying to make clear that we had no intention of writing a constitution.
And a second thing: he wanted immediate elections. And for all the reasons we discussed earlier, it was simply not possible, and the UN agreed that it was not possible. De Mello understood that. So, the content of my communications with Al-Sistani were almost entirely based on wanting him to understand the broad view of what we were trying to accomplish politically, which was a constitution that the Iraqis would write, not us, and elections, and the difficulty of getting that done. In the end, he understood.
It took six or seven months. Really not until January of 2004 did it become clear that Al-Sistani understood that we could not hold immediate elections. We had to get the constitution written. And then that's the sequence we followed. The constitution was written in January and February 2004, and the first elections were held in January 2005.
Did you get his blessing in the end?
I wasn't looking for a blessing. First of all, I was simply trying to keep him informed. My view is that his role was helpful.
- Saddam’s capture -
I want to ask about Saddam. How were you informed about his capture?
The military had the job of trying to capture him. And we coordinated obviously. We all heard rumors, people would come to me, and they'd say where Saddam is. I would pass it to the military. They would go and he wasn't there. You know, they’d say: they saw him driving a taxi cab…
Was it true?
No, we heard rumors like that. I'm just saying that it was crazy. So, the military got a tip in December, that he was somewhere near Tikrit, which was his family place. You know the story that they found a hiding hole that he was in. I was not informed about the search when it took place. But I was called to go back from my room to my office at about 2 am on December 13, 2003, by the commanding officer General Abizaid, the CENTCOM commander.
He said: “We think we have Saddam.” He told me the story and said he looks like him. He's got a scar, or a mole, or something on one leg, and we think it's him. But we have to do a DNA check to be sure. We had some DNA from his sons who had been killed in Mosul in July. But it'll take two days, because the DNA is not here. It's in Germany.
I said: “You're never going to hold this story for two days.” Abizaid said: “Well, we're going to fly him back to Baghdad, and have some of the high value prisoners, particularly Tariq Aziz, to see him, and tell us if that's Saddam.” Several of them saw him and said that it's got to be Saddam. So, I found out at that time, whatever it was 2:00 in the morning. It was great, great news.
How did he look? How was he underground?
The problem we faced was this. His two sons attacked our forces in Mosul in July 2003, and they were killed. We needed to announce that, but we wondered if the Iraqis would believe us. So, the military, Rumsfeld and his people, organized a group of pathologists to go and see the bodies, and confirm whether or not these were Saddam's sons. Because in the Geneva Convention, you're not supposed to show pictures of dead soldiers.
Until we had the Iraqi forensic officials, who do the autopsies, and confirm it, at which time, celebratory gunfire took place all over in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk. So, we faced the same dilemma again about Saddam. The conclusion was we should take a group of Iraqis to see him where he's being held, which was at the Baghdad airport. I issued an invitation to the members of the governing council, anybody who wants to come.
In the end there were only a few: Adnan Pachachi, Ahmed Chalabi, Mowaffak al-Rubaie and Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Saddam was there, and they immediately knew him by his voice and everything else. So there was no question. Therefore, I felt it was important that Pachachi, who in that month was chairman of the Governing Council, should also be at the announcement. And that's how the announcement came about.
Had you seen Saddam before or spoken to him?
No, I said nothing. He didn't have any idea. I stood at the door.
No, I didn't speak a word to him.
Did you have good relations with Ahmed Chalabi and Ayad Allawi?
I talked to them all, often… Talabani, Barzani, of course Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Abdulaziz al-Hakim, and Diaa Jubaili, the author of “The Lion of Basra”. I spent a lot of time with them.