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. 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.” 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, treating Sunnis as the bad guys and Shiites as the good guys. There were no blocs of “Sunni Iraqis” or “Shiite Iraqis” before the war, just like there was no “Sunni Triangle” or “Shiite South” until the Americans imposed ethnic and sectarian identities onto Iraq’s regions.
Despite Bremer’s assertions, Saddam Hussein’s regime was not a Sunni regime; 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. 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.
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 Iraqis saw the Americans as new colonists, intent on dividing and conquering Iraq. 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.
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. Bremer ruled Iraq as if it were already undergoing a civil war, helping the Shiites by punishing the Sunnis. He did not see his job as managing the country; he saw it as managing a civil war. So I accuse him of causing one.
Bremer claims that Hussein “modeled his regime after Adolf Hitler’s” 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.”)
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. 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.
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. But there is growing evidence that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since Bremer first came to power in Baghdad.
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.
Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq.”