- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

Former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer said yesterday’s televised images of Saddam Hussein arraigned before an Iraqi judge in a Baghdad courtroom marked a milestone for the fledgling government.

“It’s hard if you haven’t been there to realize the emotions that surround Saddam among Iraqis,” Mr. Bremer told editors and reporters of The Washington Times in an hourlong interview conducted at the Old Executive Office Building.

“It’s an extremely emotional thing for Iraqis to see Saddam as they saw him today, facing a justice that he denied his own people.”

As the trial progresses and the new government finds its feet, “hopefully it will start to drain some of the poison out of the system” left by Saddam’s quarter-century of misrule, he added.

Dressed in a dark suit and sporting conventional dark loafers instead of the tan combat boots he favored in Baghdad, Mr. Bremer spoke three days after he oversaw the stealthy transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi authority in Baghdad.

He defended many of the controversial decisions of his Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), conceded that the new government still faced major security and economic problems, and said he remained optimistic that life in Iraq will improve gradually as the new government settles in.

“To me there’s no argument — Iraq is an infinitely better place today than it was 15 months ago,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can seriously argue that.”

Iraqi opinion polls showed a deep dislike of the CPA and of the U.S. military presence in general, but Mr. Bremer said Iraqis remained deeply grateful for the overthrow of Saddam’s regime.

“We did not conquer a country here. We conquered and threw out a hated regime,” he said.

“Here we come in and throw out a government that they were unable to throw out, and throw it out in three weeks. And the Iraqis say, ‘That’s great, now why don’t you go away?’ So I understand the problem.”

He staunchly defended two of the most hotly debated decisions of his tenure — not recalling the Iraqi military after it disintegrated in the aftermath of the war last year and the widespread purge of officials from Saddam’s ruling Ba’ath Party from the postwar government and military.

Critics argued that the two moves created a vast pool of Iraqis alienated from the U.S.-led occupation forces, making them prime recruiting targets for the insurgency that has bedeviled the country since the combat phase ended.

But Mr. Bremer said if he had to do it all again, he again would reject efforts to reconstitute Iraq’s shattered army. “I stand by my decision,” he said.

He argued that massive looting had destroyed all the former military barracks. Trying to preserve the army could have “set off a civil war” with Iraq’s Kurds and Shi’ite Muslims, both of whom deeply distrusted Saddam’s military forces, he added.

Mr. Bremer said the CPA’s original “de-Ba’athification” policy had been designed to ensure that the top four ranks of Saddam’s party — a total of 25,000 to 30,000 people out of 2 million party members — did not get jobs in the public sector.

“The implementation of the policy by the de-Ba’athification council under the Iraq Governing Council went much further, and I think it hurt” Iraqi education and health care in particular, he said.

He defended a wide-ranging series of edicts he issued as CPA administrator, touching on everything from the creation of an Iraqi supreme court to regulations on tax rates, foreign investment policy and an independent central bank.

On balance, Mr. Bremer said, huge strides have been made toward the establishment of a representative government, the rule of law, protection of minority rights and a free-market economy.

“These changes to fundamental political and economic life are vital,” he said.

But he expressed disappointment that the CPA had not tackled the huge, inefficient state-owned companies and the oil and other subsidies set up under Saddam. He said reforms of the state sector were considered too dangerous to undertake at a time of high unemployment and unrest.

“It was a tactical decision,” he said.

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