GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
The United States is officially out of Iraq. The last convoy of troops and supplies arrived in Kuwait early this morning. We're going to begin this hour with a look back on that enterprise and ask some of the people involved whether it was worth it. Our cover story today: Iraq: The end of an experiment.
In a moment, Paul Bremer, the American envoy who became the de facto governor of Iraq after the war, but first to NPR's Kelly McEvers. We spoke with her just as she arrived in Kuwait today as the last troops left Iraq.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It was a dusty road, a kind of small, little border crossing, coming from Iraq into Kuwait, and it was a convoy of armored vehicles one by one rolling across this border. You know, a few of us reporters were embedded with this convoy, so I was actually in one of these vehicles, then hopped out and kind of watched the rest of them come over, quietly lumbering over the border. And then as the last one came, they shut the gate, and that was it.
RAZ: Kelly, I understand there is some political intrigue happening in Baghdad as we speak. What is happening there at the moment?
MCEVERS: Really interesting that this is happening right now. You know, here in Kuwait, just having crossed over the border, we have all these U.S. commanders telling us that they're leaving Iraq in a better place, that it's a thriving democracy. Yet in Baghdad, it looks like you have Prime Minister Maliki who is a Shiite, and his government is Shiite going after his rivals who are Sunnis.
Just yesterday, charges were announced against the vice president who is a Sunni, and troops surrounded his house. The Maliki government accuses him of being involved in a terrorist plot. But, you know, Maliki's detractors say this is just sectarian revenge. So, you know, we've got these promises from U.S. commanders that things are going really well, but this kind of national reconciliation government in Baghdad looks like it's unraveling.
RAZ: Kelly, you are with the last troops who have left Iraq. What are they saying at this moment? I mean, any of them either wistful or just happy to be gone or just sort of - is there an absence of any sentimental feeling?
MCEVERS: All of the above. You know, I talked to people who said, we just don't even have time to reflect right now. I mean, a couple of sleepless nights getting ready to get out of Iraq, definitely the guys and gals who are on, you know, third, fourth, fifth tours, people who had seen some really intense battles in, you know, Anbar province and Sadr City, you know, who had lost friends, I mean, they're reflective.
But also, people are kind of thinking about the future. I think the commanders are really concerned about the future and how these more than one million soldiers who served at one time in Iraq are going to reintegrate into life back in America. So the commanders are really trying to talk to the soldiers now about, you know, taking as much care with their lives back at home as they did with their lives here in deployment.
RAZ: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Kuwait. So what about those more than one million members of the military who served there?
PATRICK O'DONNELL: Some are in, and then some are unemployed, some are homeless, sleeping in trucks, guys that have PTSD. We've had two Marines that have killed themselves.
RAZ: That's Patrick O'Donnell. He was a combat historian embedded with a Marine unit during the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004. O'Donnell wrote about his experiences in his book "We Are One."
Seventy-one Marines were killed in that battle and more than 607 wounded. It was the bloodiest urban combat for Marines since the Vietnam War. And the day before they left for Fallujah, O'Donnell listened as the men were debriefed.
O'DONNELL: The battalion commander was like, Fallujah will be the Gettysburg of this war.
RAZ: When they arrived, the unit took shelter in a disused train station. And soon, they would encounter insurgents from across the Arab and Islamic world - Jordanians, Iraqis, Libyans, Chechens.
O'DONNELL: Fallujah was a Star Wars bar of insurgents.
RAZ: For three weeks, the First Platoon, Lima Company, fought house to house.
O'DONNELL: Most of the houses in front of us were empty. There was no one in them. And people started to get, like, kind of relaxed. And all of a sudden, a Jihadi who was armed with an AK jumped up near us and ran in the direction of these houses. And as Mike was going in front of me, they hit Mike Hanks in the face with a full blast of the RPK.
RAZ: Lance Corporal Mike Hanks, just 22 at the time, was one of four Marines in a unit who were killed. The platoon suffered one of the highest casualty rates in the battle. Thirty-two out of 46 men were injured or killed.
O'DONNELL: You know, when I was in Fallujah, I saw guys that would just basically go AWOL from the aid station to just rejoin their brothers. They would hide their wounds, you know, multiple times hit by shrapnel and they would just hide it. They wouldn't report it. You know, I mean, this is the - the men of Afghanistan and Iraq are the next greatest generation.
RAZ: That's combat historian Patrick O'Donnell. He was embedded with the Marine's First Platoon, Lima Company, during the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004.
In May 2003, President George W. Bush sent Ambassador Paul Bremer to Iraq to head up the Coalition Provisional Authority. For the next year, he would be the main authority in the country. Bremer remains one of the most controversial figures at that time. He ordered the disbanding of the Iraqi army and he pushed for de-Baathification, the process of rooting out former Baath Party members from the new Iraqi government. Today, Bremer believes the pullout is premature.
PAUL BREMER: The situation there is still quite fragile, which is why I think it's disappointing that the president has not kept troops there after (unintelligible).
RAZ: You think they should stay.
BREMER: I do. Actually, what's more important than I think so - his military advisers thought so.
RAZ: Mm-hmm. For how long, though?
BREMER: I don't know. Until the situation is where we can really say stable. I think it's very fragile still now.
RAZ: Mm-hmm. Are there decisions that you took at the time when you were in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority that on reflection you might regret?
BREMER: The biggest mistake I made was in turning over the implementation of our de-Baathification decree, the decree which affected the Baath Party members, to Iraqi politicians instead of to - when I could have set up some kind of an Iraqi panel of judges or lawyers, whatever. And, of course, de-Baathification remains a hot issue in Iraq. It shows how difficult it is to deal with. The fact that it's still, you know, years later is still a big issue.
RAZ: As you know, many critics of you and of the war point to the decision to disband the Iraqi military in 2003 as a turning point and something that was directly linked to the rise of the insurgency. What do you make of that? I mean, do you think that was the right decision?
BREMER: Absolutely. And I think it's an incorrect analysis. I've never seen any persuasive evidence that suggests otherwise. The fact of the matter was there was no Iraqi military anywhere in place when I arrived in May about three weeks after the fall of Baghdad. So reconstituting the army would've meant several things. First of all, we would've had to take American troops of whom we already had too few and send them into villages and farms to force Shia conscripts back into an army they hated under Sunni officers who basically brutalized them. So the concept of reconstituting the army had virtually no political (unintelligible).
RAZ: But there was a salary for many people.
BREMER: We paid every single conscript a separation fee. We paid every single officer a pension. It's a little known and little reported fact. We paid those pensions all the way through our time in Iraq and they were continued by the subsequent two Iraqi governments. So the idea that suddenly, there were a bunch of people on the streets with no money is simply flat wrong.
RAZ: Have you had an opportunity to confront your critics? I mean, you know that they're out there and there have been many books written about Iraq and you are mentioned in there, and including some of the Republican presidential candidates in the past have criticized you by name. Have you - do you ignore that criticism, or do you confront it?
BREMER: I just confronted it 30 seconds ago. I have problem confronting it. I've said what I just said to you over and over in the years since then.
RAZ: Around June 2003, I had taken a trip all over Iraq and I met former military officers and ordinary Iraqis who had really been expressing quite a lot of hostility towards the American occupation. I asked you about this in a news conference and asked if you were concerned about it. And I want to play your answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
RAZ: Did you at the time truly see it that way? Or did you feel that it was better to express optimism?
BREMER: No. I think at that period - you said it was in June of 2003 - there was no question that the overwhelming response of the Iraqi people was to welcome the fact that Saddam had been thrown out.
RAZ: That you met, that you encountered.
BREMER: No question.
RAZ: But for such a long time, I mean, these guys were referred to as dead-enders, Saddam loyalists, the last throes of the regime, something that would fizzle out, and, of course, it didn't. It got worse.
BREMER: I must say that was not my view that they were going to fizzle out. My view was that we had a serious problem on our hands because we didn't have enough troops there. I've said it - before I went to Iraq, I said it. After I got to Iraq, I'm very clear on the record. I don't need to repeat it.
RAZ: I mean, were you under certain constraints over what you could say publicly?
RAZ: You said what you could say.
RAZ: Why don't you think more was done at the time?
BREMER: Well, I really don't know. The president asked military commanders in my presence dozens of times during the 14 months I was there both in Washington, in Baghdad, in the sit room. I heard the question asked by the secretary of Defense to the Joint Chiefs and to military commanders: I never heard a general ask for more troops.
Now, you can ask yourself the question, well, why didn't they think they needed more troops? I don't have an answer to that. All I can tell you is the fact is they didn't ask for more troops, I thought they needed more troops and a better strategy, and I said so.
RAZ: Do you think historians will look back on Iraq and say this was a good decision? Or do you think that some will look back and say this was a foreign policy disaster?
BREMER: I think there'll be people saying both those things. I think the verdict of history, which we won't know for some years, will probably be considerably more favorable to the president's decision than it is now. And certainly, right now, the situation looks better than it did in 2006. So things can get better. They could also get worse.
RAZ: What is going through your mind now as we watch the end of the military enterprise in Iraq? Is it a bittersweet moment for you? Is it bringing back difficult memories, good memories, all those things?
BREMER: You know, it is bittersweet. I mean, there were great moments: the capture of Saddam and the signing of a progressive constitution, the actual handing over of sovereignty at the end. There were some rough times like when my good friend Sergio de Mello was killed in a bomb, a U.N. special representative, and we lost several people who worked for me. And my hope for the Iraqis is certainly somewhat hedged about by my concerns about our pulling out now before we should.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Ambassador Paul Bremer. He served as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003 to 2004.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.