Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

De-Baathification and Dismantling the Iraqi Army


Paul Bremer with army peopleThe 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which came not long after the invasion of Afghanistan, proved to be highly controversial, not only for the rationale behind the invasion (Saddam Hussein and his putative support of 9/11 and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction) but for how the war itself and the governing of the country were conducted. On May 11, 2003, President George W. Bush appointed L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer as the Presidential Envoy to Iraq and then the top civilian administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Shortly thereafter, two of the CPA’s most notable decrees entered into force, on May 16, 2003 and May 23, respectively:  CPA Order Number 1 , which banned the Ba’ath party in all forms, a process otherwise known as de-Baathification; and CPA Order Number 2, which dismantled the Iraqi army.

The latter decision was sharply criticized in hindsight, as many observers blame it for fueling the insurgency that would plague the country to this day. Bremer defends the decision by noting that most of the Iraqi army had been brutalized under Saddam and had no desire to continue serving if given the chance. Therefore, in the Pentagon’s terminology, the Iraqi army “self-demobilized.” Bremer was interviewed beginning in 2008 by Charles Stuart Kennedy.

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“The Iraqis, who rarely agree on much, were unanimous that the Baath Party had no role to play in the future of Iraq”

Baath as NaziQ: When you arrived in Iraq, there were two decisions you made which people in the usual Washington shorthand refer to as being horrible mistakes. One was the disbanding of the Iraqi army and two, de-Baathification. What prompted this and how did you see this play out?

BREMER: Taking de-Baathification first: The Baath Party was intentionally modeled on the Nazi Party. Saddam Hussein admired — and he was quite public about it — the way Hitler had used the Nazi Party and Secret Services to control the German people. During World War II there had been substantial influence of Nazi ideology in parts of the Middle East, including the Baath Party. So he had more or less the same system for the Baath Party.

By 2003, most Iraqis hated the party. Only ten percent of them were members, about two million members in the party. Of these, some were members just because it was the only way to advance your government career. During 2002, the State Department had consulted a broad range of Iraqis to consider The Future of Iraq, as the Department’s study was titled. Ryan Crocker ran the study at State. The Iraqis, who rarely agree on much, were unanimous that the Baath Party had no role to play in the future of Iraq after liberation.

On April 10th, the day after Baghdad fell, the Commander of Coalition Forces, General Tommy Franks, issued his “Freedom Message” in which he outlawed the Baath Party. So the party had already been outlawed by the time I rejoined government. The question then was what do we do now?

The Pentagon, under the direction of Under Secretary [Douglas] Feith, drafted a de-Baathification decree, broadly following the de-Nazification ideas that were used in the German occupation but much milder. In the case of the de-Baathification decree which the Pentagon drafted, it said first of all it will affect only the top one percent of the party, some 20,000 people — in other words less than one-tenth of one percent of the Iraqi people.

Secondly, the decree said only that the small number of people affected would no longer have jobs in the government. They would be free to become farmers or businessmen or journalists or whatever. Unless they had criminal charges against them, they were free. So it was a very narrowly drawn decree which Feith drafted and cleared with other U.S. agencies and which I issued.

We started taking public opinion polls in September of ’03 and took them regularly every several weeks until we left in 2004. The polls consistently showed de-Baathification was the single most popular thing the Occupation did during its time in Iraq, usually supported by 94-95% of the Iraqi people. It was the right thing to do.

“We had to do undo what the Iraqi de-Baathification council had done”

In fact, criticism that we got from Iraqis was that the decree did not go far enough. There were pressures among Iraqi leaders to broaden the decree to say the Baath people not only couldn’t work in government, but they shouldn’t be allowed in the private sector either, which is what happened in de-Nazification. There’s no question in my mind if we had turned this process over to the Iraqis immediately, they would have implemented a far more stringent policy against the Baathists and provoked a sectarian battle much sooner than it happened….

First of all, when we issued the decree, there was almost no criticism at all. The issue was not even widely reported in the American and international press until almost a year later, in 2004. Let me go back:  when I announced this policy, I said the decree establishes our objective — as soon as possible — to turn over to an Iraqi de-Baathification council responsibility for implanting the decree.

We understood that many people might have joined the party simply to get a job.

Q: Why was this tribunal getting rid of so many people?

BREMER: I think there were a lot of different trends. One was the Iraqi Shia who are 60% of the population, deeply resented the centuries-old domination of the Sunnis from the Ottoman times, then under the British, under the Hashemite king, and then under the Baath Party. So there was some understandable historic resentment on the part of the Shia. Some of it had to do with score settling.

Ayad AllawiDuring my time in Iraq I met thousands of Iraqis. I never met an Iraqi who had not had some relative killed or tortured by Saddam Hussein or his secret services. So there was a degree of understandable outrage about the Baath Party. And some of it was probably score-settling at a political level; some members of the exile community, for example, Ayad Allawi [the interim Prime Minister of Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and Vice President of Iraq from 2014 to 2015, pictured] had been a member of the Baath Party back in the ‘60s. He was one of Chalabi’s main competitors for political power. So there was an aspect of that here. There were a lot of different trends.

Instead of turning the implementation of this very narrow decree over to a group of politicians, I should have established some kind of a judicial review panel made up of non-political Iraqi lawyers, and there are such people, and had them implement the decree.

Q: Under Saddam there was no separate judicial branch?

BREMER: There was a judicial branch. But Saddam followed the model of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and of many totalitarian countries. He set up courts wherever he wanted and called them “special tribunals” “military courts”, ”special courts” — whatever he wanted — as a way of circumventing the established judicial system.

Soon after arriving, I set up a Coalition judicial panel composed of American, British, and Australian lawyers to work with Iraqi lawyers. There were some 850 judges on the government rolls in Iraq. The panel went through each of those judge’s files to see which of these judges we could give a clean bill of health to. The majority of them were untainted by Saddam because he went around the standing judicial system. In effect, under Saddam there had been no law and order.

As I recall, we were able to clear about 600 of them to participate in the reconstituted judicial system. I also signed a law establishing the independence of Iraq’s judiciary, a decision urged by the new Iraqi Minister of Justice and one which found its way into the Constitution written by the Iraqis.

“The system was slow, atrophied by decades of bureaucratic caution”

Q: Did you find an intact administrative core?

BREMER: Yes, that’s another one of the myths about de-Baathification. People say that the process stripped the government of all its personnel and collapsed the government. This is nonsense.

In the 21 ministries all of the ministers and deputy ministers had fled before Baghdad fell on April 9. They were either out of the country or they were in hiding. They were gone. So the de-Baathification decree did not affect the topmost people in the government. In the ministries most of the civil servants had stayed at their desks. They were competent civil servants usually headed by a Director General.

But you have to remember that the bureaucratic infrastructure in these ministries was almost nonexistent. They had no computers. They had few phones, and there was no national phone system in place except for members of the Revolutionary Council. The banks were all closed down and there was no way to transfer funds between branches. There was no Internet. There were no internal management information systems. No coherent sets of accounts. And so on. In effect, these ministries were functioning in a 1960s or 1970s work environment.

I think the Ministry of Finance had a Secretary General which was one level up from Director General. Mostly it was director generals. Most of these men — and they were mostly men except for two ministries — the Ministry of Planning and the Ministry of Agriculture had women in senior positions. Most of these senior civil servants were in their mid-50s. They had been working in that ministry all their careers for, say, 30 years. So they had always worked under Saddam Hussein. They had never known any other system. They were, by and large, competent but extremely and understandably cautious.

The problem we had was not that de-Baathification had some dramatic effect on the ministries. It didn’t. The problem was that these civil servants, even the top one, were very reluctant to take responsibility or initiative. I could understand this because under Saddam Hussein if you took initiative and it was wrong, your tongue was cut out, your head was cut off, your daughter was raped, and you were sent to jail — something very unpleasant happened. So you did not take chances.

You know, in the State Department we complain about the clearance process. Well, the way it worked in Iraq, if you were a deputy Director General of Ministry of Transportation and you wanted to buy a new railroad car, you got 12 or 13 people to sign the document before you sent it up to the minister. So that if something went wrong and the Secret Service came around and said, “OK, Abdul, what were you doing?” you could at least say, “Look, Mohammad agreed and Tariq agreed”. So you had some protection.

Reminds you of the clearance process, but here if you get it wrong you’re unlikely to suffer as would an Iraqi civil servant. We faced a “cultural bureaucratic” problem. We worked closely with the Ministry of Finance to get budgets out to the other ministries but the system was slow, atrophied by decades of bureaucratic caution.

Iraq refugees 1991For example, when I made my first call on the Minister of Irrigation, a Kurd, he said “I’ve got a great plan to create jobs. I can create tens of thousands of jobs cleaning up canals that have silted up in southern Iraq.” Southern Iraq is Shia land and after the Shia Uprising in 1991, Saddam had forbidden them to maintain canals.

It is an agricultural area so the canals are vital to the economy. They had silted up and become saline. The Minister’s idea was, “If you give me 20 million dollars, we can get men and boys and women and everybody working down there.”

I thought it was a great idea and asked the Minister of Finance if he could agree to send the Minister of Irrigation the money. He agreed. But we found that it took weeks to get the money transferred because of the inherent conservatism in the Ministry of Finance. They weren’t going to just send 20 million dollars. Since there was no system of electronic transfer of funds anywhere, all funds had to be transferred in cash. So any movement meant a convoy to take the 20 million dollars to the Ministry of Finance or from the Central Bank to the Ministry of Irrigation.

Eventually the money went over there and we did create several hundred thousand jobs in short order. The CPA financial advisor said that we faced a terrible case of “bureaucratic constipation.” It took a long time to get anything moving because of this inherent conservatism. That had a far greater impact on getting the system moving than de-Baathification. The key point is that all the ministries kept functioning, led by long serving civil servants until Iraqi Ministers took office on September 1st, 2003.

Q: Did you find in this conservatism and wanting clearances and actually not acting, was there also almost a sabotage element or something like that?

BREMER: We sometimes wondered. There probably were sympathizers with the old regime in some of the ministries. From time to time we wondered if there was intentional sabotage going on, and I am sure there was in some cases, but I think most of it was not that. I think most of the loyalists left. Certainly the ministers and deputy ministers were all gone.

“There wasn’t any army to disband. The Pentagon’s own term was the Iraqi army had ‘self-demobilized.’”

paul bremer interviewQ: When I talk to almost anyone I can think of they say, “Well, yeah. Bremer made two bad mistakes: one, he removed all the Baathists and all the technical people from the government and two, he disbanded the army and they should have been at least paid to police the borders.”

BREMER: Right. This is the conventional wisdom and, like most conventional wisdom, it is wrong. Let’s talk about the army; first of all, what was the army? The army under Saddam Hussein was an army as large as the American army in a country one-twelfth the size of the United States.

It was an army dominated, like most institutions, by Sunnis. It was extremely officer heavy. In an army the size of the American army Iraq’s had some 12,000 generals. The American army at that time had 307 generals, to give you an idea of the contrast. (Photo: Bremer and General Jay Garner from No End in Sight, Magnolia Pictures)

They were largely equipped and trained by the Soviets. And like the Soviet army, it was a conscript army. Most of the enlisted men were Shia, and as in the Soviet army, as portrayed by [famed writer Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, the conscripts were regularly brutalized, sodomized, tortured, and killed by their officers. The officer corps was predominantly Sunni. It was not a place you particularly wanted to spend a lot of time if you were a draftee. There were about 315,000 enlisted men.

During the war the army saw which way the war was going. The enlisted men took their rifles and went home, back to their farms, or villages or apartments. Before they went home, in many cases, they destroyed the barracks out of rage against the army and their officers. Before I even returned to government, General Abizaid, then the Deputy Commander of CENTCOM [U.S Central Command], on April 17th, 2003 reported that there was not a single unit of the Iraqi army standing to arms anywhere in the country. There was no army.

The mistake I made was the use of the term ‘disbanding’ because there wasn’t any army to disband. The Pentagon’s own term was the Iraqi army had ‘self-demobilized’. The top civilians in DOD [Department of Defense] had concluded that “the army had in fact disbanded.” So the question we had faced was do we recall the army?

There were practical and political reasons not to recall it. Practically, recalling the draftees would have meant sending American soldiers into the villages and towns and farms where the Shia conscripts had gone and forcing them back into an army they hated. Is that how we were going to use American forces? We were going to use American forces to go force, brutalize conscripts back into an army they hated, under officers they hated? Is that what we were going to do?

At this point, we didn’t even have enough Coalition forces to secure Iraq’s borders. Secondly, there was no place to put the army. There were no barracks. They had all been demolished in the post war looting. The political argument against recalling the army was more important than the practical problems.

Halabja massacreIn the 1980s, the army had conducted what is generally recognized as a genocidal war against the Kurds, killing hundreds of thousands of Kurds, displacing even more, and even using chemical weapons on the Kurds in Halabja in 1988….And of course the Iraqis used chemicals against the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. So that’s what Saddam’s army had done to the Kurds who make up about 20% of Iraq’s population.

In 1991 after we expelled Iraq from Kuwait, the Iraqi Shia rose up. They compose about 60% of Iraq’s population and rose up against Saddam in the hopes that America would follow up its victory in Kuwait by liberating them from their hated leader. We stood by as Saddam repressed them brutally, here too using the Republican Guards and the army. They killed hundreds of thousands of Shia.

So 80% of the population, the Kurds and the Shia, were very clear about the likely results of our recalling the army. Each had heard rumors that some American soldiers favored recalling Saddam’s army. The Kurdish leaders — Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani — told me if you recall the army, we Kurds will secede from Iraq. The secession of the Kurds from Iraq then or today or in the future will, in my view, bring on a major regional war. It will start civil war in Iraq. But it would also likely bring on a major regional war because neither the Iranians nor the Turks could tolerate an independent Kurdistan.

The Shia leaders said they interpreted these rumors as showing our intention to install “Saddamism without Saddam.” The Shias had been cooperating with the Coalition following guidance from Grand Ayatollah Ali-al Sistani. So the political arguments against recalling the army were even stronger than the practical arguments.

So what were we to do? Most of the so-called conventional wisdom doesn’t pay attention to what we did. We decided to create a new Iraqi army. It would be a new all-volunteer army. We said we would accept enlisted men from the old army and officers from the old army, up to the rank of colonel. We had no need initially to recruit officers above colonel because for at least a year, we would not need generals.

We planned a three-division army, but with only the first division up after a year. So we wouldn’t need general officers initially, and we figured we could promote colonels from within to be generals in the new army. We decided to pay all the conscripts in the old army a one-time severance payment.

“We in the CPA didn’t do a good job of getting ahead of the story once it started to swing against us”

We also paid all officers except for the top generals a monthly stipend; in reality, it was a pension which we calculated to be twice what they would have received under Saddam. We started those payments in July of 2003 and continued them to the former officers the entire time we were in Iraq. Those payments were continued by three successive Iraqi governments and continue to this day.

So it is incorrect to claim that the decision not to recall the army created thousands of unemployed and unpaid soldiers. They were being paid. They were free to engage in business matters if they wished. I don’t doubt that some of these officers went into the insurgency and still continue to oppose democratic rule in Iraq. But they are doing it because they don’t agree with the political process, not because they didn’t get paid. They got paid and had ample economic opportunities beyond their pensions.

Q: The whole thing has been portrayed as you casting this entire military loose with its weapons and all, and then giving them no place to go.

BREMER: Two points. First, this decision was carefully vetted by our top national security advisor, Walt Slocombe, who had been Under Secretary of Defense under President [Bill] Clinton. It was reviewed and approved by the Secretary of Defense, cleared with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the Army Commander on the ground, General [First name] McKiernan, and approved by the President. The decision was not controversial at the time. When Slocombe called a press conference to announce the decision, two journalists showed up and neither of them were American.

The first I heard anybody in our government raising doubts about the decision to build a new Iraqi army was six months later, in late October when the insurgency was picking up. General Abizaid then said to me that he had “always thought this was not a good idea.”

I said to him, “Always, John? That’s the first I have heard of it.” I think it became a convenient excuse for the fact that our government was not prepared for the counterinsurgency doctrine we needed.

meeting with Iraqi leadersI admit that we in the CPA didn’t do a good job of getting ahead of the story once it started to swing against us in the fall of 2003. We were too late in reacting once people started this narrative that this had been a mistake. We should have conducted a better strategic communications program on this in the summer of 2003. (Photo: AFP /Bullit Marquez)

One final point on this criticism of “disbanding” the army. In the spring of 2004, the Marines were trying to subdue violence in the western city of Fallujah. The commanding general of the Marines decided, apparently on his own, to recall a brigade of the old Iraqi army there. The decision was taken without coordination or even information to the CPA. They recalled the brigade’s former Brigadier General, dressed him in his old army uniform and put him on television. It did not help that he was a dead ringer for Saddam.

The recall of this single brigade caused a political crisis in Baghdad and among Iraqis everywhere. Several Iraqi ministers resigned or threatened to resign. Several members of the Governing Council tendered their resignations. There was bewilderment in Washington about what was happening.

Worse, when the recalled brigade was sent by the Marines into Fallujah, instead of helping to restore order, the entire unit went over to the enemy itself and had to be disbanded. I rest my case.

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