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Paul Bremer on Iraq

Tim Gratz

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In Iraq, Wrongs Made a Right


Published: January 13, 2006 New York Times

THE recent debate set off by the publication of my book about my time in Iraq has shed more heat than light. Here are some of the fundamental lessons I took away from the American experience.

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Book Review: "My Year in Iraq" by L. Paul Bremer III First, repairing the damage to Iraq by decades of tyranny was never going to be easy, and I made some mistakes.

For example, consider our efforts to ban senior Baath Party officials from public office. This was the proper decision - the party had been a key instrument of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship - and our policy was intended to affect only the top 1 percent or so of party members.

The error was that I left the implementation of the policy to a political body within the nascent Iraqi government, where it became a tool of politicians who applied it much more broadly than we had intended. De-Baathification should have been administered by an independent judicial body.

We also placed too much emphasis on large-scale reconstruction projects. While the urgent need for modern highways, electrical generating plants and the like was clear, we should have anticipated that building them would take a long time. Our earlier efforts should have been directed more tightly at meeting Iraqis' day-to-day needs.

To speed up those larger projects, I should have also insisted on exemption from the usual bureaucratic and contracting rules. This lesson was brought home to me in a dramatic fashion a few weeks after I arrived. We had learned that six major hospitals in Baghdad urgently needed new generators to run their operating rooms and air-conditioning plants. Our budget director told me I could use American funds, which were subject to United States federal contracting rules, or Iraqi government funds, which were not. Using American money, he told me, would mean waiting four to six months for the generators. We used Iraqi funds and got the equipment in eight days. In the future, Congress must make provisions for legitimate exemptions.

Another clear lesson is that the United States must be better prepared for the post-conflict phase should we find ourselves in similar military situations in the future. The administration has made a good start by setting up offices of reconstruction in the State and Defense Departments. But the effort must be broadened through the government and especially the private sector. The goal should be a quick-reaction, public-private Civilian Reserve Corps consisting of people with expertise on matters like the establishment of telecommunications facilities, rebuilding of electrical power plants, modernizing health care systems and instituting modern budgeting procedures.

Last, much attention has been paid to my concern about the need to retain adequate manpower to defeat the terrorists and insurgents. Our military leaders said they had sufficient forces to ensure law and order, and that additional soldiers might increase Iraqi hostility. Theirs was a respectable argument. But I disagreed with it. And while I had concerns about the quality of Iraqi forces two years ago, their training has since been revamped. Today they are playing an increasingly important role in defending Iraq.

Despite the missteps and setbacks, there is little question that, thanks to efforts by the American-led coalition, enormous political and economic progress is being made in Iraq today.

Two years ago, Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, told his followers there that there would be no place for them in a democratic Iraq. One year later, Iraqis voted in the country's first genuine elections. Then they wrote and approved a new Constitution. And last month 70 percent of voters turned out to elect a new Parliament. Now that body should modify the Constitution to address legitimate concerns of the Sunnis.

As for Iraq's economy, at liberation it was flat on its back: the World Bank estimated that in 2003 the economy contracted by 41 percent. Now Iraq benefits from an independent central bank, and a new currency whose stability is a remarkable indicator of confidence. The economy is open to foreign investment and commercial laws have been modernized. The International Monetary Fund reports that per-capita income has doubled in the last two years and predicts that Iraq's economy will grow 17 percent this year. No wonder registration of new businesses has jumped 67 percent in the last six months.

There is, of course, still much to be done. American troops and Iraqis continue to die battling criminal elements of the Saddam Hussein regime and Qaeda terrorists. President Bush has correctly identified Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism, as Osama bin Laden himself acknowledged when he told his followers "the third world war has begun in Iraq" and that it would "end there in victory and glory, or misery and humiliation."

Despite these enormous stakes, some Americans have called for setting a timetable for our withdrawal or even pulling out now. This would be a historic mistake: a betrayal of the sacrifices Americans and Iraqis have made; a victory of the terrorists everywhere; and step toward a more dangerous world.

L. Paul Bremer III, the former director of the Coalition Provisional Authority, is the author of "My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope."

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