My Year in IraqThe Struggle to Build a Future of Hope
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2006 L. Paul Bremer III
All right reserved.ISBN: 0-7432-7389-3
Chapter One Chaos
Monday, May 12, 2003
Baghdad was burning.
As the Air Force C-130 banked above the curve of the Tigris River, I twisted in the sling seat and stared out the circular window of the cargo bay. The capital of Iraq stretched north beneath the right wing, dusty beige, sprawled in the shimmering heat. Dark smoke columns rose in the afternoon sun. I counted three, five ... seven.
Beside me, my colleague, retired ambassador Hume Horan, was saying something. But his voice was swallowed by the engine roar. I took out the foam earplugs the crew had distributed when we'd boarded the plane that morning in Kuwait.
"... government buildings," Hume shouted over the howl of the turboprops. "... Baath Party offices." He pointed toward the smoke rising above the arc of the river. "Most of the ministries were concentrated in that district. Saddam liked to keep a close eye on his people."
Ahead in the open compartment, Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his entourage also peered down at Baghdad. Over the weekend, my small staff and I had flown nonstop with Dick Myers aboard a huge C-17 jet transport from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Doha, Qatar, on the Persian Gulf. From there, we'd taken this C-130, first to overnight in Kuwait, and then this morning to Basra in southern Iraq. We'd been traveling almost forty-eight hours.
The smoke below in Baghdad held all our attention.
Clay McManaway, another retired ambassador, my old friend - and now my deputy - was seated nearby. "Industrial-strength looting," he yelled. "After they strip a place, they torch it. Lots of old scores to settle."
Hume nodded in agreement as I replaced my earplugs. He was one of the State Department's leading Arabists, had spent much of his career in the Middle East, and knew Baghdad well. I did not.
Among my own assignments during almost three decades as an American diplomat, I'd been Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's chief of staff and ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism under President Ronald Reagan, jobs that had taken me to almost every capital in the region. Every one but Baghdad. While Francie, my wife of thirty-seven years, and I had served at the American Embassy in Afghanistan long ago, this was my first trip to Iraq, the country where I was about to face the biggest challenge of my life.
Less than a month before, I'd been just another former ambassador living happily outside Washington, working in the private sector. I ran the crisis management division of a large American company, Marsh & McLennan. Francie and I didn't miss the political pressure and crushing workload of high-level diplomacy. We'd recently bought an old farmhouse in New England where we hoped to vacation with our children and grandkids.
But on this hot afternoon above Baghdad, I was eight thousand miles away from suburban Washington and the mountains of Vermont. I was also back in the government, the recently appointed administrator of the newly formed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Some press reports characterized me as "the American viceroy" in occupied Iraq.
As the senior American in Baghdad, I would be President George W. Bush's personal envoy. My chain of command ran through Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and straight to the president. I would be the only paramount authority figure - other than dictator Saddam Hussein - that most Iraqis had ever known.
Being a civilian, I would have no command authority over the 170,000 Coalition troops spread thin across Iraq, a country the size of California with a population of more than 25 million. But the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) - the Coalition's military arm, headquartered in Tampa, Florida - had orders from the president and Rumsfeld to coordinate their operations with the CPA and me.
The Coalition forces that had toppled Saddam after three weeks of intense combat were mainly American soldiers and Marines, but included more than 20,000 British and a much smaller number of Australians, as well as troops from NATO countries, including our new Central European allies.
The terrain they occupied was as varied as Iraq's human landscape. Coalition troops held positions in the marshy Shatt al-Arab delta of the Tigris and Euphrates, in the river towns and holy cities of the south where the Shiites, 60 percent of Iraq's population, were concentrated. Five hundred miles to the north, there were Coalition outposts on the pine-covered ridges in the homeland of the Kurds, non-Arabs who comprised about 20 percent of the population. And our units were also dotted across the flat, baking desert of central and western Iraq, the heartland of the minority Sunni Arabs who made up the 19 percent of Iraqis and had dominated Iraqi society for centuries.
The plane's whining engines dropped in pitch, and the bank angle increased to the left. A young crewman in a desert-tan flight suit strode through the swaying cargo compartment, flexing the fingers of his right hand.
"Five minutes," he called, "five." He then made a sharp cinching gesture at his waist to remind us to tighten our red nylon seat belts.
This model of the workhorse C-130 transport was called a Combat Talon and normally carried Special Operations Forces on low-altitude parachute drops or steep assault landings deep in enemy territory. We'd flown up from the southern Iraqi city of Basra at an altitude of only 200 feet, flashing above the mud-walled villages and date groves among the ancient skein of irrigation canals that had made Mesopotamia the Fertile Crescent for millennia.
The purpose of flying fast, "down on the deck," had not been to provide sightseeing for VIPs but to minimize the risk from ground fire. During the invasion a month earlier, automatic weapons and small arms had mauled U.S. Army attack helicopters passing over these sleepy farming compounds. Although President Bush had declared the end of "major combat operations" eleven days before, Deputy CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid had conceded that the country was not yet fully pacified when he'd briefed us at CENTCOM's forward headquarters in Qatar.
In less than five minutes we'd land at Baghdad International Airport. Pulling my seat belt tight, I stifled a yawn and thought back over the events that had brought me here.
It was mid-April and Francie and I were leaving the Hartford, Connecticut, airport in a rental Ford Taurus, en route to Vermont to choose furniture for our farmhouse. Francie had bought one of those sticky buns at the airport and the smell of cinnamon filled the car as we pulled onto Interstate 91.
She seemed happy and turned to me. "Honey, I always feel I'm in good hands with you."
I glanced at her smiling blue eyes and hated to spoil that contentment. Not only does Francie have fibromyalgia, which often keeps her bedridden, but she had recently popped two discs in her back, which sent hot twinges down her sciatic nerve along the right leg. Still, she was temporarily free of pain and excited about furnishing our vacation home.
But I had to tell her what was weighing on my mind, and I had to tell her now. Washington couldn't wait any longer.
"We need to talk," I said gently. "About a job I may be offered."
"What job?" she asked quickly, the bun halfway to her mouth. Francie and I are so close that we sense each other's moods instantly, and the atmosphere in the car cooled at once. "What job?" she insisted. "Last time I checked you had a job."
She was right, of course. Running Marsh & McLennan's crisis management division for eighteen months had been engrossing work. But Francie knew I was eager to draw on my experience to help our country some way, any way, in the global war on terrorism. I had been fighting this battle for almost twenty years, most recently as chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism. In our report to President Bill Clinton in June 2000, the blue-ribbon commission had predicted mass-casualty terror attacks on the American homeland "on the scale of Pearl Harbor." As with most such panels, our recommendations had been largely ignored until the attacks of September 11, 2001, proved our point.
And after that disaster, even at the age of sixty-two I just couldn't stay safe on the sidelines. Members of the Bush administration had discussed several jobs with me in the past months. But whenever the topic arose, Francie had opposed the idea, vehemently.
"I need you too much," she'd say. "I depend on you too much." And I knew she had a point.
Now as we drove north from Hartford, I raised the subject again. "This time it's a job where I can really make a difference. In a way, it uses all the skills I've acquired over a long career ... diplomacy, insight into other cultures, management, and stamina ..."
"What job?" Now she was curious. I knew Francie; if I could hook her intellect I'd be halfway there.
"Helping to put Iraq back together." Only a few days before, we'd sat in our suburban Washington home watching the CNN coverage as deliriously happy Iraqi men and boys had beat their shoes on the decapitated head of Saddam Hussein's statue that the victorious American Marines had just toppled.
"You?" She became quiet and just looked at me while I studied the road ahead with my heart pounding. I wanted this challenge. At least I wanted the chance to try. But I wouldn't do it without her blessing.
Slowly, as we drove north through the greening hills, we worked our way around the subject. I told her that I had been contacted by Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and by Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense. The Pentagon's original civil administration in "post-hostility" Iraq - the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, ORHA - lacked expertise in high-level diplomatic negotiations and politics. And, contrary to most media accounts, the White House had never intended ORHA's leader, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner, to be the president's permanent envoy in Baghdad. I had the requisite skills and experience for that position.
"They're interested in my being considered for the job of running the occupation of Iraq."
Finally, after a long, thoughtful silence, Francie smiled again. "Okay, if anybody can do it, you can."
Now, I'm no softy, but her words brought tears to my eyes: I knew what it would demand of her as well as of me. But she patted my leg and said, "You better call whoever you have to call before I change my mind."
We both understood that the task of rebuilding Iraq would be difficult. But driving through the sunny foothills of the Green Mountains that April afternoon, neither Francie nor I could anticipate the true nature of the assignment or the strain it would put on both of us.
Ten days later, I was in the Oval Office.
Since my talk with Francie, things had moved quickly. Understanding that I was willing to be considered for the job, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had asked me to meet with him. I had known him for decades, since the time we both had worked for President Ford. We had stayed in touch over the years, and I admired his patriotism, quick intelligence, and drive. We discussed the situation in Iraq, and I confirmed my interest. He said he would check with the other members of the national security team and get back to me. At 6:30 that night, his office told me we had a meeting with the president the next day at 10:00 a.m.
"Why would you want this impossible job?" President Bush asked me bluntly.
George W. Bush was as vigorous and decisive in person as he had appeared on television, trying to rally the country after 9/11. I had never met him before, although during my years as a diplomat I had come to know and respect his father and mother.
"Because I believe America has done something great in liberating the Iraqis, sir. And because I think I can help."
This first brief meeting was over, except for a message Francie asked me to give him. "Mr. President, my wife wants you to know that her favorite passage from your State of the Union speech is, 'Freedom is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to mankind.'"
The president smiled as he shook my hand, obviously moved by Francie's words.
Over the next two weeks, I had a frenzied series of meetings at the Pentagon, struggling to get "read in" on the situation in Iraq before my departure. Between sessions, I scrambled to assemble a staff. The Pentagon had already made available Air Force Colonel Scotty Norwood as my military aide. Scotty knew the ropes at the Department of Defense and immediately began serving me with extraordinary skill. The Navy offered up an energetic young lieutenant, Justin Lemmon.
On a visit to Vice President Cheney I learned that his special assistant, Brian McCormack, was interested in going to Iraq. I found him standing by the copy machine in Cheney's outer office at the White House and asked him if this was true.
"It is," Brian said with a confident smile.
"Are you married?" I asked. I wasn't eager to take people with young families to Baghdad.
"Not yet," he replied. "I can be ready to leave in a week."
This is the kind of enthusiasm I need, I thought, and hired him on the spot.
Realizing I would also need some wise, experienced counsel, I thought of my old friend and colleague, Ambassador Clayton McManaway. He had been my deputy twice in the State Department, had served in Vietnam, in the Department of Defense, and knew the intelligence community. After a tour as our ambassador to Haiti, where he'd managed a difficult "regime change" himself, Clay had retired and was living in South Carolina.
With the DOD's help, I tracked him down that Friday afternoon. Clay was on a train, on his way south to a vacation in Florida.
I described my concept of the job: "Lots of long days and nights, and there's bound to be frustrating negotiations. I'm going to need a lot of help, Clay. Please come join me."
"I'll get off at the next stop and be there tomorrow, Jerry."
Next, there had to be a senior person who knew the culture and language of the Arab world. I had worked closely a decade earlier with one of the State Department's very best, Ambassador Hume Horan. I found him in happy retirement in Washington.
My pitch to him also worked, and the next day he joined my briefings at the Pentagon.
Clay and I discussed the gigantic administrative job the Coalition Provisional Authority would face. The Coalition already had over six hundred civilian employees and the staff would undoubtedly grow into the thousands.
"I know only one guy who could handle such a management challenge," I said. "Pat Kennedy."
"Absolutely," Clay agreed. We'd worked with Pat for decades at the State Department, where he was recognized as the best administrator the modern Foreign Service had produced.
Pat was serving as a deputy ambassador to the United States mission at the United Nations in New York. Would he give that up and leave his family for the uncertainties and dangers of Iraq? Through the State Department Operations Center, Clay tracked down Pat, who was on his way back from a family vacation in Mexico.
After obtaining the blessing of his boss, Ambassador John Negroponte, Pat reported, "I'll be honored to serve."
There was one final gap to fill. I knew that my work would involve intense interaction with Congress. Someone suggested that congressional expert Tom Korologos might be interested in serving in Iraq. I'd known Tom for decades and knew he would make a strong addition to the team because of the high regard he commanded in both political parties. But I doubted that at this stage in his life he would want to leave the quiet security of his lobbying practice in Washington for the dangers of life in Baghdad. To my happy surprise, Tom immediately agreed to come along. Later, we added another former State Department colleague, Bob Kelley, to the team managing the hundreds of congressional visitors to Iraq.
Less than ten days into the job, I had my personal staff and senior deputies. But I was beginning to gauge the scope of the task we faced. A chaotic power vacuum prevailed in Iraq. When Coalition tanks rolled into Baghdad, they destroyed more than Republican Guard armor and artillery. Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship, one of the world's most repressive totalitarian regimes, lay shattered, its leaders fugitives. And, while the American-led Coalition had accomplished half of its stated goal of regime change by ousting Saddam Hussein, we were far from identifying honest, energetic, and patriotic Iraqis who could govern post-Baathist Iraq.
As I was considering this situation, Jim Dobbins, a former diplomat and experienced analyst with the RAND Corporation, added another dimension when he came to my Pentagon office. "Jerry," he said, handing me a document, "you've got to see this." I knew RAND to be one of the country's most respected think tanks.
The paper was a draft RAND report estimating the troop levels that would be needed to stabilize postwar Iraq. The study was impartial, and unflinching. The professionals at RAND did not deal in rosy scenarios; they applied cold logic to problems.