Mr. Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein-era military, “The policy was to keep the army intact; didn’t happen.”
But when Mr. Draper pointed out that Mr. Bush’s former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army’s dissolution and then asked Mr. Bush how he reacted to that, Mr. Bush said, “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’ ” But, he added, “Again, Hadley’s got notes on all of this stuff,” referring to Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser.
Today's NY Times reports:
A previously undisclosed exchange of letters shows that President Bush was told in advance by his top Iraq envoy in May 2003 of a plan to “dissolve Saddam’s military and intelligence structures,” a plan that the envoy, L. Paul Bremer, said referred to dismantling the Iraqi Army.
Mr. Bremer provided the letters to The New York Times on Monday after reading that Mr. Bush was quoted in a new book as saying that American policy had been “to keep the army intact” but that it “didn’t happen.”
The dismantling of the Iraqi Army in the aftermath of the American invasion is now widely regarded as a mistake that stoked rebellion among hundreds of thousands of former Iraqi soldiers and made it more difficult to reduce sectarian bloodshed and attacks by insurgents. In releasing the letters, Mr. Bremer said he wanted to refute the suggestion in Mr. Bush’s comment that Mr. Bremer had acted to disband the army without the knowledge and concurrence of the White House.
“We must make it clear to everyone that we mean business: that Saddam and the Baathists are finished,” Mr. Bremer wrote in a letter that was drafted on May 20, 2003, and sent to the president on May 22 through Donald H. Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense.
After recounting American efforts to remove members of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein from civilian agencies, Mr. Bremer told Mr. Bush that he would “parallel this step with an even more robust measure” to dismantle the Iraq military.
One day later, Mr. Bush wrote back a short thank you letter. “Your leadership is apparent,” the president wrote. “You have quickly made a positive and significant impact. You have my full support and confidence.”
On the same day, Mr. Bremer, in Baghdad, had issued the order disbanding the Iraqi military. Mr. Bush did not mention the order to abolish the military, and the letters do not show that he approved the order or even knew much about it. Mr. Bremer referred only fleetingly to his plan midway through his three-page letter and offered no details.
In an interview with Robert Draper, author of the new book, “Dead Certain,” Mr. Bush sounded as if he had been taken aback by the decision, or at least by the need to abandon the original plan to keep the army together.
“The policy had been to keep the army intact; didn’t happen,” Mr. Bush told the interviewer. When Mr. Draper asked the president how he had reacted when he learned that the policy was being reversed, Mr. Bush replied, “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, “This is the policy, what happened?’ ”
Mr. Bremer indicated that he had been smoldering for months as other administration officials had distanced themselves from his order. “This didn’t just pop out of my head,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday, adding that he had sent a draft of the order to top Pentagon officials and discussed it “several times” with Mr. Rumsfeld.
A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House is not commenting on Mr. Draper’s book, said Mr. Bush indeed understood the order and was acknowledging in the interview with Mr. Draper that the original plan had proved unworkable.
“The plan was to keep the Iraqi Army intact, and that’s accurate,” the official said. “But by the time Jerry Bremer announced the order, it was fairly clear that the Iraqi Army could not be reconstituted, and the president understood that. He was acknowledging that that was something that did not go as planned.”
But the letters, combined with Mr. Bush’s comments, suggest confusion within the administration about what quickly proved to be a decision with explosive repercussions.
Indeed, Mr. Bremer’s letter to Mr. Bush is striking in its almost nonchalant reference to a major decision that a number of American military officials in Iraq strongly opposed. Some senior administration officials, including the secretary of state at the time, Colin L. Powell, have reportedly said subsequently that they did not know about the decision ahead of time.
Gen. Peter Pace, then the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in February 2004 that the decision to disband the Iraqi Army was made without the input of the joint chiefs. “We were not asked for a recommendation or for advice,” he said.
The reference from Mr. Bremer’s note to Mr. Bush is limited to one sentence at the end of a lengthy paragraph in a three-page letter. The letter devoted much more space to recounting what Mr. Bremer described as “an almost universal expression of thanks” from the Iraqi people “to the U.S. and to you in particular for freeing Iraq from Saddam’s tyranny.” It went on to recall how Mr. Bremer had been kissed by an old Iraqi man who was under the impression that Mr. Bremer was Mr. Bush. In his 2006 memoir, Mr. Bremer said he had briefed senior officials in Washington on the plan, but he did not mention the exchange of letters with Mr. Bush.
On Monday, Mr. Bremer made it clear that he was unhappy about being portrayed as a renegade of sorts by a variety of former administration officials.
Mr. Bremer said he sent a draft of the proposed order on May 9, shortly before he departed for his new post in Baghdad, to Mr. Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials.
Among others who received the draft order, he said, were Paul D. Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense; Douglas J. Feith, then under secretary of defense for policy; Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, then head of the American-led coalition forces in Iraq; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. Bremer said that he had briefed Mr. Rumsfeld on the plan “several times,” and that his top security adviser in Baghdad, Walter B. Slocombe, had discussed it in detail with senior Pentagon officials as well as with senior British military officials. He said he received detailed comments back from the joint chiefs, leaving no doubt in his mind that they understood the plan.
“I might add that it was not a controversial decision,” Mr. Bremer said. “The Iraqi Army had disappeared and the only question was whether you were going to recall the army. Recalling the army would have had very practical difficulties, and it would have political consequences. The army had been the main instrument of repression under Saddam Hussein. I would go on to argue that it was the right decision. I’m not second-guessing it.”
General McKiernan reportedly felt unhappy with Mr. Bremer’s plan to slowly build a new Iraqi Army from scratch, as were other American officers. In his farewell meeting with Mr. Bremer in June 2003, he urged him to “go bigger and faster” in fielding a new military.