Mistakes Loom Large as Handover Nears

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

The Washington Post

June 20, 2004

First of three articles

BAGHDAD -- The American occupation of Iraq will formally end this month having failed to fulfill many of its goals and stated promises intended to transform the country into a stable democracy, according to a detailed examination drawing upon interviews with senior U.S. and Iraqi officials and internal documents of the occupation authority.

The ambitious, 15-month undertaking stumbled because of a series of mistakes that began with an inadequate commitment of resources and was aggravated by a misunderstanding of Iraqi politics, religion and society in occupied Iraq, these participants said.

"We blatantly failed to get it right," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who served as an adviser to the occupation authority. "When you look at the record, it's impossible to escape the conclusion that we squandered an unprecedented opportunity."

Viewed from Baghdad since April 2003, the occupation has evolved from an optimistic partnership between Americans and Iraqis into a relationship riven by frustration and resentment. U.S. reconstruction specialists commonly complain of ungrateful Iraqis. Residents of a tough Baghdad neighborhood who welcomed U.S. forces with cold cans of orange soda last spring now jeer as military vehicles roll past. A few weeks ago, young men from the area danced atop a Humvee disabled by a roadside bomb, eventually torching it.

In many ways, the occupation appears to have transformed the occupier more than the occupied. Iraqis continue to endure blackouts, lengthy gas lines, rampant unemployment and the uncertain political future that began when U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad. But American officials who once roamed the country to share their sense of mission with Iraqis now face such mortal danger that they are largely confined to compounds surrounded by concrete walls topped with razor wire. Iraqis who come to meet them must show two forms of identification and be searched three times.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. entity that has administered Iraq, cites many successes of its tenure. Nearly 2,500 schools have been repaired, 3 million children have been immunized, $5 million in loans have been distributed to small businesses and 8 million textbooks have been printed, according to the CPA. New banknotes have replaced currency with ousted president Saddam Hussein's picture. Local councils have been formed in every city and province. An interim national government promises to hold general elections next January.

But in many key quantifiable areas, the occupation has fallen far short of its goals.

The Iraqi army is one-third the size U.S. officials promised it would be by now. Seventy percent of police officers have not received training. When violence flared across the country this spring, many soldiers and policemen refused to perform their duties because U.S. forces failed to equip them, designate competent leaders and win trust among the ranks.

About 15,000 Iraqis have been hired to work on projects funded by $18.6 billion in U.S. aid, despite promises to use the money to employ at least 250,000 Iraqis by this month. At of the beginning of June, 80 percent of the aid package, approved by Congress last fall, remained unspent.

Electricity generation remains stuck at around 4,000 megawatts, resulting in less than nine hours of power a day to most Baghdad homes, despite pledges from U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer to increase production to 6,000 megawatts by June 1.

Iraq's emerging political system is also at odds with original U.S. goals. American officials scuttled plans to remain as the occupying power until Iraqis wrote a permanent constitution and held democratic elections. Instead, Bremer will leave the Iraqis with a temporary constitution, something he repeatedly promised not to do, and an interim government with a president who was not the Bush administration's preferred choice.

The CPA, which had 3,000 employees at its peak, will dissolve on June 30, the date designated to confer sovereignty on Iraq's interim government. U.S..-led military forces -- 138,000 U.S. troops and 23,000 from other nations -- will remain, free to conduct operations without the approval of the interim government. The management of reconstruction projects and other civilian tasks will be handled by a new U.S. embassy. Over the course of the occupation, the relationship between the CPA and the military has become increasingly bitter. Soldiers have blamed civilians for not rebuilding the country quickly enough to pacify the country, while civilians have blamed the military for not providing enough security to enable the rebuilding. In the view of several senior officials here, a shortage of U.S. troops allowed the security situation to spiral out of control last year. Attacks on U.S.-led forces and foreign civilians now average more than 40 a day, a threefold increase since January. Assassinations of Iraqi political leaders and debilitating sabotage of the country's oil and electricity infrastructure now occur routinely.

On the eve of its dissolution, the CPA has become a symbol of American failure in the eyes of most Iraqis. In a recent poll sponsored by the U.S. government, 85 percent of respondents said they lacked confidence in the CPA. The criticism is echoed by some Americans working in the occupation. They fault CPA staffers who were fervent backers of the invasion and of the Bush administration, but who lacked reconstruction skills and Middle East experience. Only a handful spoke Arabic.

Within the marble-walled palace of the CPA's headquarters inside Baghdad's protected Green Zone, there is an aching sense of a mission unaccomplished. "Did we really do what we needed to do? What we promised to do?" a senior CPA official said. "Nobody here believes that."

This account is drawn from interviews with a score of current and former CPA officials, several in senior positions, other U.S. government officials and Iraqis who work with the CPA. Most spoke on the condition they not be identified by name because of rules barring people working for the CPA from speaking to journalists without approval from CPA public affairs officials.

In an interview last week, Bremer maintained that "Iraq has been fundamentally changed for the better" by the occupation. The CPA, he said, has put Iraq on a path toward a democratic government and an open economy after more than three decades of a brutal socialist dictatorship. Among his biggest accomplishments, he said, were the lowering of Iraq's tax rate, the liberalization of foreign-investment laws and the reduction of import duties.

Bremer acknowledged he was not able to make all the changes to Iraq's political system and economy he had envisioned , including the privatization of state-run industries. He lamented missing his goal for electricity production and the effects of the violence. In perhaps the most candid self-criticism of his tenure, he said the CPA erred in the training of Iraqi security forces by "placing too much emphasis on numbers" instead of the quality of recruits.

"When I step back, there's a lot left to be done," he said.

A 'Naive' Blueprint

Bremer said that when he arrived in Baghdad on May 12, 2003, he was shocked by what he saw.

Policemen were not at work. The capital's two antiquated power plants were barely running. Looted government buildings were smoldering. Prominent exiles who had returned with the intention of running the government were unwilling to share power with Iraqis who lived under Hussein.

With no significant security threat to attenuate their ambition, Bremer and his staff set out trying to reconstruct Iraq from the bottom up, focusing on long-term solutions instead of short-term fixes. They announced that Iraqis would have to achieve a series of political milestones before the United States would return sovereignty.

Instead of reconstituting the Iraqi army, they decided to build a new defense force from scratch. Bremer directed his advisers to restructure government ministries. He advocated expansive free-market economic reforms. As a sign of the break with the past, Bremer issued an order banning many members of Hussein's Baath Party from participating in government.

Several current and former CPA officials contended that key decisions by Bremer favored a grandiose vision over Iraqi realities and reflected the perceived prerogatives of a military victor. Critics within the CPA also faulted Bremer for working to advance a conservative economic agenda of tax cuts and free trade instead focusing on the delivery of basic services.

"There was this grand idea that we were going to turn Iraq into a model nation, a model democracy, with an ideal constitution and an ideal economy and an ideal military," said a State Department official who spent several months working for the CPA. "It was just naive."

Despite the scale of their plans, and Bremer's conclusion by last July that Iraq would need "several tens of billions of dollars" for reconstruction, CPA specialists had virtually no resources to fund projects on their own to create much-needed local employment in the months after the war. Instead, they relied on two U.S. firms, Halliburton Co. and Bechtel Corp., which were awarded large contracts to patch Iraq's infrastructure.

The CPA also lacked experienced staff. A few development specialists were recruited from the State Department and nongovernmental organizations. But most CPA hiring was done by the White House and Pentagon personnel offices, with posts going to people with connections to the Bush administration or the Republican Party. The job of reorganizing Baghdad's stock exchange, which has not reopened, was given in September to a 24-year-old who had sought a job at the White House. "It was loyalty over experience," a senior CPA official said.

By late summer, as car bombs rocked Baghdad and ambushes were on the rise, Bremer and his advisers decided to scale back their ambitions. Privatization plans were dropped. Instead of thorough screening and training for Iraqi police officers, military commanders were ordered to hire and arm as many officers as they could find. Faced with objections of Iraqi religious leaders and impatient local politicians, the White House and the CPA reversed course and promised to hand over power before a permanent constitution was written.

But Bremer remained committed to reconstruction. He went to Congress in September and pleaded for a massive aid package, arguing that rebuilding the country, an endeavor that could employ hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, would help to achieve long-term stability.

"The plan was to have Iraqis step up to protect and govern their country and leave it to the Americans to help them with reconstruction," the senior CPA official said. "It was great in theory. But in reality, it was untenable."

Economic Miscalculations

The Daura Power Plant in southern Baghdad was supposed to be a model of the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq. Bombed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and neglected by Hussein's government, the station could operate at no more than a quarter of its rated capacity, leading to prolonged blackouts in the capital.

After CPA specialists toured the decrepit facility last summer, they vowed to bring it back to life. German and Russian firms were hired to make repairs, and it was placed atop a list of priority projects intended to achieve a 6,000-megawatt goal for national electricity production. More power, Bremer hoped, would improve the economy and daily life enough to reduce violence and stabilize Iraq.

Today, the Daura plant is indeed a model -- of how the U.S. reconstruction effort has failed to meet its goals.

The German contractors fled for their safety in April. The Russians departed in late May, after two of their colleagues were shot to death by insurgents as they approached the plant in a minivan.

Inside the facility, parts are strewn on the floor, awaiting installation. Iraqi technicians in blue coveralls lounge around, smoking cigarettes and waiting for guidance. In the turbine room, graffiti on the wall reads: "Long Live the Resistance."

The CPA intended for the Daura plant to be producing more than 500 megawatts of power by June 1. But the best it can do at the moment is 100 megawatts -- half of its output of last summer.

"We were supposed to have improved," said Bashir Khallaf, the plant director. "But we have gotten worse."

The failure to fix Daura and other plants, coupled with sabotage attacks on power lines, have renewed the debilitating blackouts that plagued Iraq last summer. The situation is not much better for other services. Attempts to fix water-treatment plants and oil refineries also are far behind schedule, forcing the country -- which has the world's second-largest oil reserves and two large rivers -- to import gasoline and bottled water. Recent attacks on fuel convoys and pipelines have depleted stockpiles, resulting in lengthy gas lines.

Several CPA officials said the Bush administration has long underestimated reconstruction costs. In its war planning, the administration devoted $900 million to reconstruction despite reporting by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations that depicted a far greater need. In the first months of the occupation, an additional $1.1 billion was committed by the White House. It was not until September that the administration asked Congress for billions more.

Although the $18.6 billion reconstruction aid package was approved by Congress in November, the Pentagon office charged with spending it has moved slowly. About $3.7 billion of this package had been spent by June 1, according to the CPA. Many projects that have received funding have slowed or stopped entirely because Western firms have withdrawn employees from Iraq in response to attacks on civilian contractors.

CPA officials contend the money should have been earmarked and spent far sooner. Had that happened, they argue, the CPA could have retained much of the goodwill that existed among Iraqis after the U.S. invasion and possibly weakened the insurgency.

"The failure to get the reconstruction effort launched early will be regarded as the most important critical failure," said one of Bremer's senior advisers. "If we could have fixed things faster, the situation would be very different today."

By starting late, the adviser said, the CPA got "caught in a security trap.." More than $2 billion of the aid package will be spent hiring private guards for contractors, buying them armored vehicles and building secure housing compounds, CPA officials estimate. "If we had spent this money sooner, before things got bad, we could have spent more of it on actually helping the Iraqi people," the adviser said.

Because many of the 2,300 projects to be funded by the $18.6 billion are large construction endeavors that will involve foreign labor instead of Iraqis, they will result in far less of a local economic boost than the CPA had promised, another senior official involved in the reconstruction said. The projects were chosen largely without input from Iraqis.

"This was supposed to be our big effort to help them -- $18 billion of our tax dollars to fix their country," the senior reconstruction official said.. "But the sad reality is that this program won't have a lot of impact in it for the Iraqis. The primary beneficiaries will be American companies."

Security Miscalculations

When anti-occupation militiamen converged on the Rafidain police station on April 4, officers inside the blue-walled building sprang into action.

They grabbed their possessions and ran home.

The militiamen were members of the Mahdi Army, an untrained but well-armed force inspired by Moqtada Sadr, a firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric deemed an outlaw by the U.S. military. Incensed that U.S. troops had shut down his newspaper and arrested one of his top deputies the day before, Sadr's followers seized government buildings in Shiite holy cities south of Baghdad and in Sadr City, a Shiite slum in the capital.

The militiamen met surprisingly little resistance elsewhere. Rafidain, in central Sadr City, was no exception.

"To shoot those people would have been wrong," said Sgt. Falah Hassan, a lanky veteran whose uniform consists of rolled-up jeans and a rumpled blue shirt. "If a man comes with principles and I believe in those principles, I will not shoot him."

The collapse of police and civil defense units in the face of the Sadr offensive stunned CPA officials, who expected them to put up a fight. A few days later, the CPA was surprised again when a battalion of Iraq's new army mutinied rather than obey orders to help U.S. Marines fight Sunni Muslim insurgents in the streets of Fallujah.

Bremer and senior CPA officials concluded that the creation of new Iraqi security forces was in trouble. The decision to hire back as many former policemen as possible, even without training, had been meant to reassure Iraqis by putting more officers on the street. But it also put thousands of ill-prepared men, some with ties to the insurgency, into uniform -- a problem that the CPA long feared but did not fully grasp until the Sadr rebellion.

"Quantity overrode quality," said Douglas Brand, a British police commander who has served as a senior CPA adviser to the Iraqi police force. "We scooped up a whole lot of people who didn't meet our criteria and put them into the police force."

Of nearly 90,000 police on duty now, more than 62,000 still have not received any training.

But Iraqi political leaders and several CPA officials contend that the problems with security were more fundamental than training police. The U.S. military came to Iraq with too few soldiers to maintain order and guard the country's borders from foreign terrorists, they said. "I don't know anyone who thinks there's enough troops here," the senior adviser to Bremer said.

These officials said the troop shortage was compounded by the decision to disband the Iraqi army. Not only did it deprive the U.S. military of tens of thousands of armed and uniformed men to help restore order, but scores of unemployed soldiers joined the ranks of insurgents fighting the occupation forces.

"We should have brought them back and vetted them over time instead of saying, 'We don't want you,' " a senior U.S. military officer in Baghdad said.

Bremer said that the army fell apart after Hussein's defeat and that it was not practical to order units back into service. And as with the police, there were questions about the loyalty and competence of the soldiers.

Another major mistake, Iraqi and U.S. officials said, was the failure to provide enough equipment to the police and the Civil Defense Corps, a 40,000-member paramilitary force. At the Rafidain station, only half the 140 officers have handguns. There are only 10 AK-47 assault rifles in the armory, three pickup trucks in the parking lot and two radios in the control room. Body armor is nonexistent, save for a few U.S. military vests worn by guards at the front door.

"How can we defend ourselves if we don't have guns and radios and cars?" said Maj. Raed Kadhim, the senior officer at the station. "The Americans promised us all of these things. Where are they?"

The sympathy for Sadr today at the Rafidain station -- on Fridays, officers pin his picture to their uniforms before going to the mosque -- suggests that the odds of getting the police to resist the cleric's militia have not improved. The scope of the confrontation could have been smaller, according to several CPA officials, had U.S. forces moved against Sadr in August, when an Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant for him. Instead, they allowed him months to build support for his anti-occupation views.

By April, with the CPA's internal polling showing 80 percent of Iraqis holding positive views of Sadr, the CPA should have sought a political solution, the officials contend. At the very least, they argue, CPA strategists and military commanders should have realized that many Iraqi security officers would side with the cleric.

"The Americans misunderstood us," Kadhim said. "We will fight for Iraq. We will not fight for them."

Political Miscalculations

From the start of the occupation, the American effort to transform Iraq's political system was challenged by another Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a cleric far more established than Sadr. The CPA's inability to deal with him forced a series of compromises that will affect Iraq long after Bremer departs.

Sistani is a man in his seventies with a snowy beard who has lived in isolation for the past six years in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. With millions of followers, he is seen as the most influential leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, a man whom Shiite politicians do not want to cross.

Sistani's position was straightforward: Iraqis, not Americans, should determine the country's political future. In June 2003, he issued a religious edict calling for Iraq's constitution to be written by elected representatives -- a demand that was in direct conflict with the Bush administration's political transition plan.

Bremer and his staff initially underestimated the influence of his edict, assuming that Shiite political leaders would be able to persuade Sistani to change his position. It was not until November that Bremer concluded there was no way to sway Sistani -- whom Bremer has never met -- and that the Bush administration's plan to have a group of appointed Iraqis write a constitution would have to be scrapped.

After hurried meetings at the White House, Bremer unveiled a new transition plan on Nov. 15 that abandoned the goal of a permanent constitution and general elections before a handover of sovereignty. Instead, the Iraqi Governing Council, the 25-member body picked by Bremer, was assigned to produce a temporary constitution. An interim government would be selected through caucuses.

Nobody bothered to run the details by Sistani first. He objected a few days later, forcing another series of changes, leading President Bush to ask U..N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to select the interim government. In the end, Bremer did not get the president he wanted: His favored candidate, Adnan Pachachi, withdrew after Shiite politicians threatened not to work with him, prompting Brahimi to choose Ghazi Yawar, a tribal sheik with no experience in government before serving on the Governing Council.

Sistani also objected to the temporary constitution. Ethnic Kurds, who had been living in an autonomous region since 1991, had insisted on a clause that would protect their rights with veto power over the language in a permanent constitution. But because Shiites are about 60 percent of Iraq's population and Kurds make up only 20 percent, Sistani was concerned that a minority not be allowed to overrule the wishes of the majority.

Bremer did not want to budge. If the provision were expunged, the Kurds would bolt. He persuaded Shiite members of the Governing Council to sign the interim constitution, leaving Sistani's basic objections unaddressed.

Then, earlier this month, the Bush administration proposed having the U.N. Security Council include an endorsement of the interim constitution in a resolution on Iraq's future. Sistani quickly issued a statement: The interim constitution, he said, "was written by a nonelected council under occupation" and is "rejected by the majority of the Iraqi people."

But when the administration expunged the reference to the interim constitution, Kurdish leaders were incensed. Iraq's two top Kurdish officials sent a letter to Bush threatening to pull out of the interim government formed earlier this month.

The dispute means Shiites and Kurds will have to hash out their differences on their own. Among the options Shiite leaders favor is dispensing with the interim constitution and writing a new version, a potentially embarrassing outcome for the administration, which has held up the document as one of the CPA's most significant achievements.

Iraqi leaders and foreign diplomats fault the CPA for not grasping Sistani's clout soon enough. Senior CPA officials said Bremer did recognize Sistani's power, but the problem was communicating with the cleric: Because Sistani refused to meet anyone from the CPA, messages were conveyed by Shiite politicians who skewed statements to suit their interests.

Although some in the CPA say they believe it is better to let Iraqis resolve the dispute over the interim constitution after June 30, others contend that the occupation authority should have ensured it had a document supported by Sistani.

"We were supposed to leave them with a permanent constitution," a senior CPA official said. "Then we decided to leave them with a temporary constitution. Now we're leaving them with a temporary constitution that the majority dislikes."

Out of Touch

Life inside the high-security Green Zone -- what some CPA staffers jokingly call the Emerald City -- bears little resemblance to that in the rest of Baghdad. The power is always on. Shiny shuttle buses zip passengers around.. Outdoor cafes stay open late into the night.

There is little effort to comply with Islamic traditions. Beer flows freely at restaurants. Women walk around in shorts. Bacon cheeseburgers are on the CPA's lunch menu.

"It's like a different planet," said an Iraqi American who has a senior position in the CPA and lives in the Green Zone but regularly ventures out to see relatives. "It's cut off from the real Iraq."

Because the earth-toned GMC Suburbans used by CPA personnel and foreign contractors have become a favored target of insurgents, traveling outside the Green Zone -- into the Red Zone that defines the rest of Iraq -- requires armored vehicles and armed escorts, which are limited to senior officials. Lower-ranking employees either must remain within the compound or sneak out without a security detail.

Although the CPA has tried to bring Iraqis into the CPA headquarters for meetings and other events -- there even has been an "Iraqi Culture Night" in the Green Zone -- the inability to mingle with Iraqis has isolated the Americans. "We don't know the outside," the senior adviser to Bremer said. "How many of us have gone out to buy a bottle of milk or a pair of socks?"

Instead of building contacts at social events in the city, CIA operatives in Baghdad drink in their own rattan-furnished bar in the Green Zone. Instead of prowling local markets, CPA employees go to the Green Zone Shopping Bazaar, where the most popular items are Saddam Hussein memorabilia.

Limited contact with Iraqis outside the Green Zone has made CPA officials reliant on the views of those chosen by Bremer to serve on the Governing Council. When Brahimi, the U.N. envoy, asked the CPA for details about several Iraqis he was considering for positions in the interim government, he told associates he was "shocked to find how little information they really had," according to an official who was present.

The CPA official who got around the most was Bremer, who travels with an entourage of private guards, most of them former Navy SEALs, equipped with helicopters and fleet of armored vehicles.

Bremer's willingness to travel and work 18-hour days has won him respect within the CPA. The chief criticism of his tenure within the former Hussein palace that serves as CPA headquarters was that he failed to recruit enough seasoned diplomats with experience in the Middle East.

In the final days of the CPA, many officials have succumbed to bitterness.. Some blame military commanders for not asking for more troops to stabilize the country. "They had enough soldiers to ensure that Saddam's men didn't come back to power, but there were nowhere near enough to make the country safe enough for us to do our work," a CPA reconstruction specialist said.

Military officials contend CPA personnel spend too much time in the 258-room headquarters. "Nobody has any idea what they do back in that palace," a senior Marine commander in Fallujah said recently. "We certainly don't see any results."

Several veterans of other reconstruction operations characterized civilian-military relations in Iraq as the worst they have encountered. "It has been poisonous," the reconstruction specialist said.

The other major conflict within the occupation bureaucracy has set the legions of young staff members chosen for their loyalty to the Bush administration against older, more liberal diplomats from the State Department and the British Foreign Office. Several of the diplomats said they regarded the young staffers as inexperienced and eager to pad their résumés during three-month tours.

These diplomats singled out the Office of Strategic Communications as unsuccessful in its efforts to disseminate information to Iraqis. Instead of creating an all-news television station that would compete with other Arab broadcasters that the CPA deemed anti-occupation, the communications office, with several employees straight from Republican staff jobs on Capitol Hill, set up a channel that aired children's programs and Egyptian cooking shows.

"It didn't put any effort into communicating with the Iraqi people," a British CPA official said. "Stratcom viewed its job as helping Bush to win his next election."

But even within the communications office, there is a sense that the occupation has not gone as well as everyone hoped. "It's a time of introspection," one press officer said.

Elsewhere in the palace, the sense of regret is far more pronounced. The senior adviser to Bremer said he felt "a sense of opportunity that slipped away."

"The ambition for us was a grand one. We had great things in mind for them.. We believed we could do it," he said. "But we didn't keep our promises."

NEXT: Learning the hard way