What Bremer Got Wrong in Iraq
By Nir Rosen
Wednesday, May 16, 2007; 12:00 AM
I arrived in Iraq before L. Paul Bremer arrived in May 2003 and stayed on long after his ignominious and furtive departure in June 2004 -- long enough to see the tragic consequences of his policies in Iraq. So I was disappointed by the indignant lack of repentance on full display in his Outlook article on Sunday.
In it, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority argues that he "was absolutely right to strip away the apparatus of a particularly odious tyranny," including the Baath Party and the Iraqi army. (disbanding the Iraqi army was a mistake, but Iraqis themselves would have sought justice/revenge against the hardcore Baathists who were responsible for atrocious crimes) He complains about "critics who've never spent time in Iraq" and "don't understand its complexities." But Bremer himself never understood Iraq, knew no Arabic, had no experience in the Middle East and made no effort to educate himself -- as his statements clearly show.
Time and again, he refers to "the formerly ruling Sunnis," "rank-and-file Sunnis," "the old Sunni regime," "responsible Sunnis." (I don't know if Nir realizes that the top brass in Saddam Hussein's regime were Sunni Arabs) This obsession with sects informed the U.S. approach to Iraq from day one of the occupation, but it was not how Iraqis saw themselves -- at least, not until very recently. Iraqis were not primarily Sunnis or Shiites; they were Iraqis first, and their sectarian identities did not become politicized until the Americans occupied their country, (actually I believe that sect became politicized when Shia mosques and marketplaces were getting bombed and key Sunni Arab MPs were accused of supporting terrorism) treating Sunnis as the bad guys and Shiites as the good guys. (Not true. If the Sunni Arabs were treated as bad guys, why then are 20% of Iraqi MPs Sunni Arab? Why is the Iraqi Vice President a Sunni Arab?) There were no blocs of "Sunni Iraqis" or "Shiite Iraqis" before the war, just like there was no "Sunni Triangle" or "Shiite South" (The south has always been primarily Shii) until the Americans imposed ethnic and sectarian identities onto Iraq's regions. (Imposed? Did the Americans tell the Iraqis that they must be identified as either Shii or Sunni?)
Despite Bremer's assertions, Saddam Hussein's regime was not a Sunni regime (yes it was); it was a dictatorship with many complex alliances in Iraqi society, including some with Shiites. If anything, the old tyranny was a Tikriti regime, led by relatives and clansmen from Hussein's hometown. (Good job, Nir) Hussein punished Sunnis who became too prominent and suppressed Sunni Arab officers from Mosul and Baghdad in favor of more pliable officers from rural and tribal backgrounds. Local Sunni movements that were not pro-Hussein were repressed just as harshly as the Shiites. (True, but Saddam's regime never punished the Sunni Arabs by attacking their towns with mustard gas or bombing them en mass after a failed uprising.)
Bremer was not alone in his blindness here. Just two weeks ago, I interviewed John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, about the crisis of Iraqi refugees, who now number more than 2 million. He displayed the same dismal approach to Iraq as Bremer. Bolton claimed that most of the refugees were Sunnis, fleeing because "they fear that Shiites are going to exact retribution for four or five decades of Baath rule." (Many Shia have also fled the country. Two of my uncles (Shia) moved to Nejef in the summer of 2005 after receiving death threats from the 'Mujahideen' of Amriya. My uncle's wife's sister decided to stay in Baghdad with her husband, who was working as a translator for the Americans. A few months later he was murdered in front of his family by the 'brave resistance', perhaps by a hardcore Baathist)
Many Iraqis saw the Americans as new colonists, intent on dividing and conquering Iraq. (If that is the case, why did so many Iraqis allow themselves to be divided?) That was precisely Bremer's approach. When he succumbed slightly to Iraqi demands for democracy and created Interim Governing Council, its members were selected by sectarian and ethnic quotas. Even the Communist Party member of the council was chosen not because he was secular but because he was a Shiite. (And who chose him?)
In Bremer's mind, the way to occupy Iraq was not to view it as a nation but as a group of minorities. So he pitted the minority that was not benefiting from the system against the minority that was, and then expected them both to be grateful to him. (Pitted? I don't remember anybody pitting the Shia against the Sunni Arabs. Nir should elaborate on what he means by 'pitted'. He writes as if Iraqis are pitbulls.) Bremer ruled Iraq as if it were already undergoing a civil war, helping the Shiites by punishing the Sunnis. (I seem to recall that up until February of 2006, it was the Shia of Iraq and any pro-democracy Iraqis who were being punished by the 'resistance'.) He did not see his job as managing the country; he saw it as managing a civil war. (It has been a civil war) So I accuse him of causing one. (That's what the 'resistance' and their supporters want everybody to believe. Bombing Shia mosques and marketplaces places don't cause civil war. Drilling holes in Sunni heads doesn't inflame civil war. Paul Bremer and his mistakes cause civil war.)
Bremer claims that Hussein "modeled his regime after Adolf Hitler's" (Joseph Stalin would be a better comparison) and compares the Baath Party to the Nazi Party. Set aside the desperation of the debater who reaches immediately for the Nazi analogy and remember that there is no mention of such "modeling" in any of the copious literature about Iraq. This ludicrous Nazi analogy permeates the entire article; it also permeated the proconsul's time in Baghdad, when Bremer imagined himself de-Nazifying postwar Germany, saving the Jews (the Shiites) from the Nazis (those evil Sunnis).
This thoughtless comparison is one of the main reasons why he performed so horribly in Iraq. (Remember, most Baath Party members were Shiites; so in Bremer's analogy, I suppose most of the Iraqi "Nazis" would be "Jews.") (Most Baath Party members were Shia because most Iraqis are Shia. Iraqis who worked for the government had no choice but to become members of the Baath Party. Evidently Nir did not ask the Iraqi Shia he stayed with if they were still fond of the Baath Party.)
Bremer claims that Iraqis hated their army at the time of the U.S. invasion. In fact, the army was the most nationalist institution in the country, one that predated the Baath Party. In electing not to fight U.S. forces, the army was expecting to be recognized by the occupation -- and indeed, until Bremer arrived, it appeared that many soldiers and officers were hoping to cooperate with the Americans.
Bremer is wrong to say that Shiites hated the Iraqi army. He treats Iraqis as if they were Hutus and Tutsis, claiming that "Shiite conscripts were regularly brutalized and abused by their Sunni officers." This is just not true. To be sure, Sunnis were overrepresented in the officer corps, and Shiites sometimes felt as if they faced a glass ceiling. (Good job, Nir) But just as there were Shiite ministers under Hussein, there were also Shiite generals. At least a third of the famous deck of cards of Iraqi leaders most wanted by the Americans were Shiites. (and they were all a bunch of low cards - the most senior was former Information Minister Mohammad Sa'eed al Sahaf, who was released and is now living comfortably in the Gulf)
Bremer also claims that the "Fallujah Brigade" was a recalled brigade from Hussein's former army. Again, simply not true. I was there. The brigade may have been led by a former Iraqi general, but enlistment was open to all volunteers in Fallujah, as I personally saw. The brigade was not a pre-existing unit that was merely recalled; rather, it was composed of a diverse group of former officers, soldiers, policemen and members of the resistance.
Bremer also exaggerates the numbers of casualties in the 1991 uprisings against Hussein. While the Baathist regime was brutal and killed tens of thousands, there is no evidence that Hussein killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, as Bremer claims. (perhaps a poll led by an Ivy League American university asking Iraqis how many family members they lost under Saddam's regime should be done. Many Arabs believe that the Iraqis killed by Saddam's regime somehow deserved it. It has been estimated that 100,000 Iraqis were killed by the regime during the 1991 uprising alone) But there is growing evidence that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since Bremer first came to power in Baghdad. (Many Iraqis have been killed by the 'resistance' and terrorists from all over the Arab world since 2003)
Some have indeed pilloried Bremer for his individual errors, such as disbanding the army. But these blunders are not the reasons why most Iraqis hate the American occupation and support violent resistance to it. The main grievance most Iraqis have with America is simply the occupation itself -- an occupation that lingers on years after Bremer waved goodbye. (hopefully the 'brave resistance' and terrorists will stop mass murdering Iraqis, so the occupiers have no reason to stay in Iraq!)