Shortly after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq in May 2003, he appointed a little-known diplomat named L. Paul Bremer to take charge of the U.S. occupation as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq.
For over a year, a career official with little experience in the region was basically the head of state of a Middle Eastern country of over 25 million people.
Bremer is remembered for some controversial decisions that greatly impacted the war, like his order to disband the Iraqi army after the invasion and remove members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from professional positions — alienating tens of thousands of unemployed Sunnis likely to join the budding insurgency.
The year Bremmer spent in Iraq was bookended by two lesser-known incidents that are still a source of personal embarrassment and regret for him. He recounted them in the recent PBS Frontline documentary “Losing Iraq.”
Because he had little experience in Middle East politics, Bremer underwent a two-week crash course before arriving in Iraq.
Upon his arrival, Bremer witnessed mass looting by Iraqi civilians amid the power vacuum that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s longstanding regime.
“I did one thing that wasn’t very smart, which was suggest to the staff meeting that I thought we should shoot the looters, that our military should have authority to shoot the looters, which they did not have at that time,” Bremer said in the “Losing Iraq” documentary. “It wasn’t very smart to do because somebody on the staff immediately told the press that I had suggested shooting the looters, and we had a problem.”
“His point was you only needed to shoot a few of them to make that point and the looting would stop,” said Dan Senor, Bremer’s senior advisor at the time.
Military commanders refused to go along with it.
“Well of course it’s against our code of honour,” U.S. Army Col. H.R. McMaster told PBS. “There just is not sufficient justification to shoot somebody because they’re carrying a computer out of the old Ministry of Education building.”
Not only did it reveal Bremer’s lack of experience on his first day in Iraq, but it also demonstrated the limits of his authority. “I think one thing Bremer found out that day is that he had no command over the military,” said Thomas Ricks, author of the book “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” in the documentary.
More than a year later, on June 28, 2004, Bremer transferred authority to an interim Iraqi government. Amid a growing insurgency and a rising U.S. and civilian death toll, it was a positive milestone that meant Bremer’s time in Iraq was up.
But he faced another embarrassing moment on June 30, his last day in the country. He wanted a media photo op at the Baghdad International Airport to convey the image that he was leaving triumphantly from Baghdad aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130 transport plane, the same way he had arrived in May 2003.
But the Americans were worried insurgents would target that massive aircraft with surface-to-air missiles. Bremer’s plan involved intentionally deceiving the public about the stability of the country he was leaving.
As he explained in the “Losing Iraq” documentary:
The intelligence was suggesting that the terrorists and the insurgents were planning a major series of attacks on June 30th to embarrass us, make it look as if we were being chased out of Iraq, not that we were leaving on our own.
So we had to devise a way to get out that didn’t involve a C-130. And we had to keep, of course, all of it secret …
[W]e pulled up the stairs and we just sat in the C-130. We sat there for about 15 minutes while the press and everybody went away. And then we went off, out over the cargo that was in the C-130, in the back, and flew on a helicopter to another part of the airport. And instead of going out on a C-130, we went out on a government plane, a smaller government plane to Jordan, safely.
“It says a lot about the security in the country by the time we did turn over sovereignty, that that is the way that we had to leave,” said Barbara Bodine, who worked with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion.
Click here to watch the entire PBS Frontline documentary, which details the events leading up to the rise of the Islamic State jihadist group threatening Iraq’s cities today.
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