Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, who spent 14 months as head of the U.S. provisional government in Iraq, said he is convinced it was necessary to oust Saddam Hussein, but the United States paid a price for not having enough troops in place to secure the country following the brief war.
Bremer, delivering the keynote address to the opening session of the 91st annual Insurance Leadership Forum at The Greenbrier, said when he arrived in Baghdad on May 6, 2003, there was “horrid” looting going on.
“We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness,” Bremer said. “We never had enough troops on the ground.”
He told the delegates to the Greenbrier conference, which is sponsored by The Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers, that whatever history concludes about the accuracy of the Bush administration’s stated justification for the invasion of Iraq – the Iraqi leader’s purported possession of weapons of mass destruction – “there can be no doubt that implementing a regime change was the right thing to do.”
His remarks could prove controversial as they echo criticism by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry and others.
A Bremer aide told the Washington Post that his speeches were intended for private audiences and were supposed to have been off the record but were distributed by The Council in a press release.
In his remarks, Bremer detailed a gruesome history of Saddam’s brutality against his own people and told of his experiences in visiting a field that served as a mass grave for 20,000 to 30,000 Iraqis, including women and children. Saddam “killed more Muslims than any man in modern history” and may have killed as many as 300,000 Iraqis during his 35 years in power.
At the time President Bush went to war, Bremer said, the United States and other nations had intelligence suggesting that Saddam had provided a safe haven to terrorist groups, had used chemical weapons against Iran and his own people before and had lied about the possession of weapons of mass destruction for almost a decade. There had been no United Nations weapons inspection team allowed in the country for almost four years, so Bremer said there was a “real possibility” that Saddam might provide weapons of mass destruction to the new terrorist groups that have vowed to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.
“The status quo was simply untenable,” he said, adding that after his 14 months in Iraq, “I am more than ever convinced that regime change was the right thing to do.”
Bremer said history will judge the Bush administration’s strategy for meeting the post-war challenges in Iraq, but he disputed those who say the administration had no plans.
“There was planning, but planning for a situation that didn’t arise,” he said, including a large-scale humanitarian or refugee crisis or the possibility that Saddam might blow up Iraq’s oil fields and refineries.
“Could it have been done better? Frankly, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking back,” he said.
Although Iraq may not be up and running, Bremer said it is definitely “up and walking,” and there are signs that the economy is on the rebound. He said he anticipates a considerable flow of foreign capital into the country once the security situation improves, and he believes Iraq will be able to hold the elections that now are scheduled for late January.
“I believe the elections will happen,” he said. “They will be rough; there will be violence,” but that is not unusual for initial elections in war-torn areas.
“Despite the daily reports, I am optimistic about the future of Iraq,” Bremer said.
He also said he believes the United States will continue basically the same path in Iraq regardless of whether Bush is re-elected or Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts wins the White House.
“My impression is that both the candidates have more or less the same plan,” he said, which means building up Iraq security, keeping U.S. troops in place until the country is secure and doing the best that can be done to defeat terrorism there and elsewhere.
“America’s not a nation of quitters. Both candidates have made it clear we will see it through,” he said.
Bremer also said winning the war on “the new terrorism,” which he described as a radical, extremist version of Islam, “is a long-term project” that will take decades and perhaps involve several generations. To win, he said, the nation needs to be just as “patient, tough-minded and consistent” as it was in confronting the threat of communism in the former Soviet Union.
“I’m confident we will not fail America, Iraq or the world in the 21st Century,” Bremer said.
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