War Stories

Who Disbanded the Iraqi Army?

And why was nobody held accountable?

Paul Bremer

It’s strangely appropriate that, just as the debate gets under way over whether the Iraq war’s next phase will be its last, another scuffle has broken out over how the U.S. occupation went so badly from the outset.

The dispute concerns what many regard as the Bush administration’s single biggest mistake in the first few months after Saddam Hussein’s ouster—the order, in May 2003, to disband the Iraqi army.

It was a move that put 250,000 young Iraqi men out of a job, out on the streets, angry, and armed—and all but guaranteed the violent chaos to come.

In Robert Draper’s new book, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (which was excerpted in Slate), Bush blamed L. Paul Bremer, who was head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority during the occupation’s first year, for the decision.

“The policy had been to keep the [Iraqi] army intact; didn’t happen,” Bush told Draper. Asked how he had reacted to Bremer’s reversal, Bush replied, “Yeah, I can’t remember. I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’ “

After this exchange was reported in the New York Times, Bremer fought back. He gave the Times two letters from that period: one in which Bremer told Bush what he was doing; and a reply in which Bush patted Bremer on the back for doing a good job. The former envoy also wrote a Times op-ed piece in which he claimed that a) he was only following orders from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; b) top officials and officers in the Pentagon and the White House had approved the move; c) disbanding the Iraqi army was a good idea; and d) there was really no Iraqi army left to disband anyway.

It is a stunning fact that—despite the massive library of in-depth books, tell-all memoirs, and investigative articles about every tactical decision regarding this war—we do not yet know who made this key strategic decision.

Bremer is right about one thing: It wasn’t him. Though he wouldn’t be so self-demeaning as to admit it, he was a mere errand boy on this point. He arrived in Baghdad on May 14, 2003. The next day, he released CPA Order No. 1, barring members of the Baath Party from all but the lowliest government posts. The next day, he issued CPA Order No. 2, disbanding the Iraqi army.

In his memoir, published last year, Bremer wrote that he was handed the orders—and told to announce them as soon as possible—by Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy. “We’ve got to show all the Iraqis that we’re serious about building a new Iraq,” Feith reportedly told him. “And that means that Saddam’s instruments of repression have no role in that new nation.”

Feith was a messenger, too, reporting directly to Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, and ultimately to Secretary Rumsfeld.

Did Rumsfeld write the order? Bob Woodward, in State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, quotes Rumsfeld as saying that the order came from elsewhere. Does that mean it came from the White House? My guess is it came from Vice President Dick Cheney, if only because his is one of the most leakproof offices in Washington. Had the order originated someplace else, that fact would have leaked by now. It’s like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story; unbarking dogs in this administration, especially at this late date of decrepitude, tend to be the hounds in Cheney’s kennel.

But where did Cheney get the idea? A good guess here is that it came from that familiar meddler of the era: the Iraqi exile, chief neocon guru, and suave banker-mathematician, Ahmad Chalabi.

Chalabi, recall, was interested in two things above all, once Saddam Hussein was toppled: removing Baathists from every level of activity in Iraqi politics and society and installing his militia, the Free Iraqi Forces, as the foundation of a new Iraqi army. (Soon after Saddam’s overthrow, Wolfowitz arranged for a military transport plane to fly a few hundred of these militiamen to Nasiriya; they vanished almost instantly into the streets. After that, Chalabi had himself briefly appointed to head the official de-Baathification commission.)

In other words, CPA Orders No. 1 and 2 fit Chalabi’s twin agendas perfectly.

So, was Chalabi the prime mover here? Again, we don’t know. Depending on how well records were kept (or whether they were subsequently destroyed), we may never know.

What we do know is that both orders directly violated decisions that had been made at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

On March 10, 2003, a week before the invasion, the National Security Council held a principals’ meeting, attended by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, the Joints Chiefs of Staff, and the top aides to all these officials. They decided that after the war, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be set up—similar to such panels in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Communist Eastern Europe—to ferret out the undesirable Baathists from those who could reliably work for a post-Saddam regime. Most Baathists were ordinary, even apolitical, people whose jobs required them to join the party. A rough calculation by NSC staffers and intelligence analysts was that only about 5 percent of the party—the leaders—would have to be removed, and even they would have the right to appeal.

On March 12, at another principals’ meeting, on what to do about the Iraqi military, these same top U.S. officials decided to disband the Republican Guard—Saddam’s elite corps and bodyguards—but to call the regular army’s soldiers back to duty and to reconstitute their units after a proper vetting of their loyalties.

Both of these decisions were unanimous. NSC staff members had briefed officials on these plans before the meetings, up and down the chain of command, and they encountered no substantive dissent.

Most of these officials learned about Bremer’s orders the way that most citizens did—by reading about them in the newspaper. Colin Powell, then secretary of state, called Gen. Peter Pace, then vice chairman of the JCS, and asked if he had known about the order. Pace replied that he hadn’t and that none of the chiefs had been consulted.

In Baghdad, a U.S. Army colonel named Paul Hughes had spent weeks contacting officers of the Iraqi regular army, paying them to call up their troops to rejoin the new government—just as the NSC had directed. He was flabbergasted when Bremer’s orders came down. (Hughes’ travails are well documented in George Packer’s book The Assassins’ Gate and in the documentary film No End in Sight. In the movie, Hughes convincingly demolishes Bremer’s claim that there was no Iraqi army left to reconstitute.)

When Saddam’s regime collapsed, Iraq’s security system collapsed as well. Rumsfeld had failed to draw up a postwar “stabilization” plan; he deliberately sent too few troops for such a mission, in any case. There was no Iraqi army or police force to keep order. And so there was disorder and the horrors that followed.

Perhaps the most galling part of this sad saga is that nobody was held accountable for this extraordinary act of insubordination.

Many stories have since been told about the dysfunctional nature of the Bush administration—the many instances when a decision would be made, in some cases by the president himself, only to be reversed or simply ignored by (most often) Rumsfeld and/or Cheney. But this story had, very possibly, the most destructive consequences.

Did Bush realize the magnitude of the act? Did he so much as read the letter that Bremer later sent to the Times? Did he order an investigation into how this order could have been promulgated? Finally, did he care?

Bush’s casual reply to Robert Draper’s question about Bremer’s orders—”Yeah, I can’t remember”—suggests that the answer to all these questions is, pathetically, tragically, “No.”