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Tour of duty 

Paul Bremer, former top boss in Iraq, talks about the war and counters criticisms

click to enlarge L. Paul Bremer III visited Colorado Springs earlier this - week to promote his book. - GETTY IMAGES
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  • L. Paul Bremer III visited Colorado Springs earlier this week to promote his book.

As chilling new photos of old abuses at Abu Ghraib prison surfaced last week, L. Paul Bremer, III, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq during the scandal, said the United States is mired in a war with Islamic extremists that is destined to drag on for decades.

"It's going to be a generational battle against these terrorists, just as it was a generational battle against Soviet communism," Bremer said. "It's going to take a long time, and we've got to learn to be patient."

The former chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq made the remarks in a 15-minute telephone interview with the Independent several days prior to his appearance at a Broadmoor luncheon hosted by the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council on Wednesday.

Bremer is on national tour to promote his book, My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, a self-assessment of his recent year spent overseeing a country torn by decades of totalitarianism and the U.S. invasion.

Mistakes, then and now

The former ambassador was the U.S. envoy to Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004. In the 1990s, he served as director of Kissinger Associates, a firm founded by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that provides strategic advice to multinational corporations. Before that, he was President Reagan's ambassador of counterterrorism.

When asked what he considers his biggest mistakes in Iraq, he points to the so-called "de-Baathification decree." It disbanded Hussein's ruling Baath Party, which was entrenched not just in the military, but areas of civic life, such as universities.

Critics say the decree exacerbated civil strife between the minority Sunni Muslims that once ruled the land and the religiously conservative Shiite Muslim majority that now is largely in control.

"I think it was a mistake to allow the Iraqi politicians to be responsible for the implementation of the de-Baathifiation decree, which was very narrowly drawn, but which they then interpreted very broadly," he said.

Still, Bremer calls those demanding a timetable for the end of the war, including some members of Congress, misguided.

"I think the biggest mistake we could make would be to pull out before the Iraqis are prepared fully to defend themselves," Bremer said. "I talk to Iraqi leaders all the time. There isn't a single Iraqi leader who believes that they are ready to defend themselves yet. They're making a lot of progress, but they're not there yet. ... It is certainly going to be measured in years, not months."

Americans, he adds, should prepare themselves for a global war against terrorism that he believes will span decades.

"The basic challenge for America, the basic threat to our security in the next decades, is from the Islamic extremists people like al Qaeda, who have a declared intention to effectively kill us by the hundreds of thousands," he said.

"The fact that a number of states which support terrorism, most prominently now Iran, are also developing weapons of mass destruction makes it very clear: That is the key threat to America in this period ahead, and that's what we've got to combat, and that's what we are already combating by getting rid of Saddam Hussein."

Warning and washing

Prior to the invasion of Iraq almost three years ago, critics of the war and Bremer's policies warned that an ongoing U.S. presence in the Middle East could provoke anti-American hatred.

Bremer dismisses such views, saying anger toward Americans long has been rooted in extreme quarters of the Muslim world.

"I chaired the National Commission on Terrorism, a bipartisan national commission on terrorism, and we reported to President Clinton in June of 2000 ... that we faced a new terrorist threat," Bremer said.

"We based that on our examination of [al Qaeda] fatwas, their statements and all of the intelligence that's been available to American government officials for 15 years now. So it is just nonsense to say this created hatred. The hatred was there. It's been declared by al Qaeda since the late 1980s."

Bremer bristles at accusations that oil was a motive for the invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq.

"I was there for 14 months," Bremer said. "I met I don't know how many hundreds of times with American advisers military, political, the president, the vice president. We had national security meetings every week. I never once heard anybody talk about oil."

Instead, he counters, the war was based on intelligence reports concluding Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction, despite no such weapons ever being located.

A scandal-cloaked future

Bremer believes the United States has made large strides in improving Iraq.

"They've created a very progressive constitution that establishes a balance of power in government, enumerates a very broad list of protected human and individual rights freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and so forth and re-establishes the rule of law in Iraq," Bremer said, claiming that recent elections also highlight progress.

But last week, supporters of the occupation were forced to downplay disturbing new images of Abu Ghraib prisoners abused at the hands of U.S. troops.

Bremer claimed he had not yet seen the photos and video that were released by an Australian news agency.

The images depict nude prisoners covered in feces, male prisoners forced into sexual positions with each other, a limp, hooded figure handcuffed to steel railing, soldiers posing with a body in a black body bag, and other alarming content. The photos likely were taken by U.S. troops in 2003, when the abuses are believed to have occurred.

A handful of low-ranking U.S. soldiers in recent months have been convicted and sentenced for their roles in the abuse scandal.

"If [the images] are not new, I don't know what the story is," Bremer said.

Asked whether there are lessons to be learned from Abu Ghraib, Bremer continued: "I apologized for what happened. I said it was outrageous. The interesting thing was [the Iraqi] reaction was quite different from what people might have expected.

"The reaction in Iraq was that they didn't like what had happened. But every Iraqi I spoke to would go on and say, "But there's a big difference between how you have handled this and the way Saddam did.' Under Saddam, much worse things happened in Abu Ghraib than what we did."

  • Paul Bremer, former top boss in Iraq, talks about the war and counters criticisms

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