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Former US Envoy Defends Iraq Policies

After a series of elections last year, Iraqi political factions are in the process of trying to form a coalition government while a violent insurgency is still claiming lives on an almost daily basis. It has been nearly three years since the Iraq war began and now, the man who was once in charge of the American-led occupation is speaking out about his experiences. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer spoke with VOA about his accomplishments, the mistakes made and what dangers he foresees for Iraq.

It was an ominous beginning to what would be a daunting task. As Paul Bremer was about to land in Baghdad in May 2003, he could see smoke spiraling up from the city. "Baghdad is burning," is how the ambassador begins his book, My Year in Iraq.

"When we arrived the looting was going on all around Baghdad. Some of this was sort of revenge looting by people who were angry … some of it was just criminal behavior. It certainly made our work more complicated," he recalled.

The fact that U.S. troops did not stop the looting and restore order sent the wrong message, says Bremer, adding that it may have encouraged the insurgency later on.

PACE: Do you think there was any way the insurgency could have been avoided?

BREMER: It's hard to know, of course, because we don't really know how it's organized.… Whether having cracked down right away on the looting at the very beginning, whether that would have had an effect, I think it probably would have. Whether having more troops at the time of liberation … that might also have helped.

Bremer downplays reports he had disagreements with the Pentagon over troop levels.

"Well, let's be very clear. The one time I recommended more troops and the only time was at the very end of my tour there, five weeks before I left," he said.

Bremer says he decided to request more troops because he came to believe the U.S. military was overestimating the capabilities of the Iraqi forces to take over.

He also acknowledges the insurgency was, in his words, "more difficult and more tenacious than we had expected."

Expectations and reality in Iraq have often been hotly debated. In his book, Bremer states that briefings he had been given beforehand in no way prepared him for the "broken" country he saw when he arrived in Iraq.

While he staunchly defends the post-war reconstruction, he acknowledges that difficulties were in part due to Pentagon planning for a very different kind of conflict.

"They assumed a much more difficult war. They assumed a long war. They planned for events that didn't happen - a humanitarian disaster, large-scale refugee movements. They thought Saddam would destroy the [oil] wells again in the south. These things didn't happen," he said.

Bremer says reconstruction delays were due in large part to the abysmally poor infrastructure in Iraq.

The ambassador denies it was a mistake to disband the old Iraqi army, saying it was vital to contain Shi'ite Muslim and Kurdish fears of a resurgence of Saddam's Sunni-controlled officer corps.

Bremer says despite the many problems, there has been tremendous progress in Iraq, including a growing economy and burgeoning political process.

"Look at what they've done. In two short years, they have moved very far forward to a democracy. They've had three elections in the last year…. Now, they're involved in a very complicated discussion about how to put forward a government based on those elections," reminded Bremer. "Well, that what democracies do, it's complicated."

Bremer cites as remaining concerns the infiltration of the security forces by Shi'ite militias, which he says must be stopped. But, unlike some analysts, Bremer does not see a real threat that Iraq is on the verge of disintegrating into civil war.