Chapter 1: Chaos
Monday, May 12, 2003
Baghdad was burning.
As the Air Force C-130 banked above the curve of the Tigris River, I twisted in the sling seat and stared out the circular window of the cargo bay. The capital of Iraq stretched north beneath the right wing, dusty beige, sprawled in the shimmering heat. Dark smoke columns rose in the afternoon sun. I counted three, five...seven.
Beside me, my colleague, retired ambassador Hume Horan, was saying something. But his voice was swallowed by the engine roar. I took out the foam earplugs the crew had distributed when we'd boarded the plane that morning in Kuwait.
"...government buildings," Hume shouted over the howl of the turboprops. "...Baath Party offices." He pointed toward the smoke rising above the arc of the river. "Most of the ministries were concentrated in that district. Saddam liked to keep a close eye on his people."
Ahead in the open compartment, Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his entourage also peered down at Baghdad. Over the weekend, my small staff and I had flown nonstop with Dick Myers aboard a huge C-17 jet transport from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Doha, Qatar, on the Persian Gulf. From there, we'd taken this C-130, first to overnight in Kuwait, and then this morning to Basra in southern Iraq. We'd been traveling almost forty-eight hours.
The smoke below in Baghdad held all our attention.
Clay McManaway, another retired ambassador, my old friend and now my deputy was seated nearby. "Industrial-strength looting," he yelled. "After they strip a place, they torch it. Lots of old scores to settle."
Hume nodded in agreement as I replaced my earplugs. He was one of the State Department's leading Arabists, had spent much of his career in the Middle East, and knew Baghdad well. I did not.
Among my own assignments during almost three decades as an American diplomat, I'd been Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's chief of staff and ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism under President Ronald Reagan, jobs that had taken me to almost every capital in the region. Every one but Baghdad. While Francie, my wife of thirty-seven years, and I had served at the American Embassy in Afghanistan long ago, this was my first trip to Iraq, the country where I was about to face the biggest challenge of my life.
Less than a month before, I'd been just another former ambassador living happily outside Washington, working in the private sector. I ran the crisis management division of a large American company, Marsh & McLennan. Francie and I didn't miss the political pressure and crushing workload of high-level diplomacy. We'd recently bought an old farmhouse in New England where we hoped to vacation with our children and grandkids.
But on this hot afternoon above Baghdad, I was eight thousand miles away from suburban Washington and the mountains of Vermont. I was also back in the government, the recently appointed administrator of the newly formed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Some press reports characterized me as "the American viceroy" in occupied Iraq.
As the senior American in Baghdad, I would be President George W. Bush's personal envoy. My chain of command ran through Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and straight to the president. I would be the only paramount authority figure other than dictator Saddam Hussein that most Iraqis had ever known.
Being a civilian, I would have no command authority over the 170,000 Coalition troops spread thin across Iraq, a country the size of California with a population of more than 25 million. But the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) the Coalition's military arm, headquartered in Tampa, Florida had orders from the president and Rumsfeld to coordinate their operations with the CPA and me.
The Coalition forces that had toppled Saddam after three weeks of intense combat were mainly American soldiers and Marines, but included more than 20,000 British and a much smaller number of Australians, as well as troops from NATO countries, including our new Central European allies.
The terrain they occupied was as varied as Iraq's human landscape. Coalition troops held positions in the marshy Shatt al-Arab delta of the Tigris and Euphrates, in the river towns and holy cities of the south where the Shiites, 60 percent of Iraq's population, were concentrated. Five hundred miles to the north, there were Coalition outposts on the pine-covered ridges in the homeland of the Kurds, non-Arabs who comprised about 20 percent of the population. And our units were also dotted across the flat, baking desert of central and western Iraq, the heartland of the minority Sunni Arabs who made up the 19 percent of Iraqis and had dominated Iraqi society for centuries.
The plane's whining engines dropped in pitch, and the bank angle increased to the left. A young crewman in a desert-tan flight suit strode through the swaying cargo compartment, flexing the fingers of his right hand.
"Five minutes," he called, "five." He then made a sharp cinching gesture at his waist to remind us to tighten our red nylon seat belts.
This model of the workhorse C-130 transport was called a Combat Talon and normally carried Special Operations Forces on low-altitude parachute drops or steep assault landings deep in enemy territory. We'd flown up from the southern Iraqi city of Basra at an altitude of only 200 feet, flashing above the mud-walled villages and date groves among the ancient skein of irrigation canals that had made Mesopotamia the Fertile Crescent for millennia.
The purpose of flying fast, "down on the deck," had not been to provide sightseeing for VIPs but to minimize the risk from ground fire. During the invasion a month earlier, automatic weapons and small arms had mauled U.S. Army attack helicopters passing over these sleepy farming compounds. Although President Bush had declared the end of "major combat operations" eleven days before, Deputy CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid had conceded that the country was not yet fully pacified when he'd briefed us at CENTCOM's forward headquarters in Qatar.
In less than five minutes we'd land at Baghdad International Airport. Pulling my seat belt tight, I stifled a yawn and thought back over the events that had brought me here.
It was mid-April and Francie and I were leaving the Hartford, Connecticut, airport in a rental Ford Taurus, en route to Vermont to choose furniture for our farmhouse. Francie had bought one of those sticky buns at the airport and the smell of cinnamon filled the car as we pulled onto Interstate 91.
She seemed happy and turned to me. "Honey, I always feel I'm in good hands with you."
I glanced at her smiling blue eyes and hated to spoil that contentment. Not only does Francie have fibromyalgia, which often keeps her bedridden, but she had recently popped two discs in her back, which sent hot twinges down her sciatic nerve along the right leg. Still, she was temporarily free of pain and excited about furnishing our vacation home.
But I had to tell her what was weighing on my mind, and I had to tell her now. Washington couldn't wait any longer.
"We need to talk," I said gently. "About a job I may be offered."
"What job?" she asked quickly, the bun halfway to her mouth. Francie and I are so close that we sense each other's moods instantly, and the atmosphere in the car cooled at once. "What job?" she insisted. "Last time I checked you had a job."
She was right, of course. Running Marsh & McLennan's crisis management division for eighteen months had been engrossing work. But Francie knew I was eager to draw on my experience to help our country some way, any way, in the global war on terrorism. I had been fighting this battle for almost twenty years, most recently as chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism. In our report to President Bill Clinton in June 2000, the blue-ribbon commission had predicted mass-casualty terror attacks on the American homeland "on the scale of Pearl Harbor." As with most such panels, our recommendations had been largely ignored until the attacks of September 11, 2001, proved our point.
And after that disaster, even at the age of sixty-two I just couldn't stay safe on the sidelines. Members of the Bush administration had discussed several jobs with me in the past months. But whenever the topic arose, Francie had opposed the idea, vehemently.
"I need you too much," she'd say. "I depend on you too much." And I knew she had a point.
Now as we drove north from Hartford, I raised the subject again. "This time it's a job where I can really make a difference. In a way, it uses all the skills I've acquired over a long career...diplomacy, insight into other cultures, management, and stamina..."
"What job?" Now she was curious. I knew Francie; if I could hook her intellect I'd be halfway there.
"Helping to put Iraq back together." Only a few days before, we'd sat in our suburban Washington home watching the CNN coverage as deliriously happy Iraqi men and boys had beat their shoes on the decapitated head of Saddam Hussein's statue that the victorious American Marines had just toppled.
"You?" She became quiet and just looked at me while I studied the road ahead with my heart pounding. I wanted this challenge. At least I wanted the chance to try. But I wouldn't do it without her blessing.
Slowly, as we drove north through the greening hills, we worked our way around the subject. I told her that I had been contacted by Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and by Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense. The Pentagon's original civil administration in "post-hostility" Iraq the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, ORHA lacked expertise in high-level diplomatic negotiations and politics. And, contrary to most media accounts, the White House had never intended ORHA's leader, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner, to be the president's permanent envoy in Baghdad. I had the requisite skills and experience for that position.
"They're interested in my being considered for the job of running the occupation of Iraq."
Finally, after a long, thoughtful silence, Francie smiled again. "Okay, if anybody can do it, you can."
Now, I'm no softy, but her words brought tears to my eyes: I knew what it would demand of her as well as of me. But she patted my leg and said, "You better call whoever you have to call before I change my mind."
We both understood that the task of rebuilding Iraq would be difficult. But driving through the sunny foothills of the Green Mountains that April afternoon, neither Francie nor I could anticipate the true nature of the assignment or the strain it would put on both of us.
Ten days later, I was in the Oval Office.
Since my talk with Francie, things had moved quickly. Undertanding that I was willing to be considered for the job, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had asked me to meet with him. I had known him for decades, since the time we both had worked for President Ford. We had stayed in touch over the years, and I admired his patriotism, quick intelligence, and drive. We discussed the situation in Iraq, and I confirmed my interest. He said he would check with the other members of the national security team and get back to me. At 6:30 that night, his office told me we had a meeting with the president the next day at 10:00 a.m.
"Why would you want this impossible job?" President Bush asked me bluntly.
George W. Bush was as vigorous and decisive in person as he had appeared on television, trying to rally the country after 9/11. I had never met him before, although during my years as a diplomat I had come to know and respect his father and mother.
"Because I believe America has done something great in liberating the Iraqis, sir. And because I think I can help."
This first brief meeting was over, except for a message Francie asked me to give him. "Mr. President, my wife wants you to know that her favorite passage from your State of the Union speech is, 'Freedom is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to mankind.' "
The president smiled as he shook my hand, obviously moved by Francie's words.
Over the next two weeks, I had a frenzied series of meetings at the Pentagon, struggling to get "read in" on the situation in Iraq before my departure. Between sessions, I scrambled to assemble a staff. The Pentagon had already made available Air Force Colonel Scotty Norwood as my military aide. Scotty knew the ropes at the Department of Defense and immediately began serving me with extraordinary skill. The Navy offered up an energetic young lieutenant, Justin Lemmon.
On a visit to Vice President Cheney I learned that his special assistant, Brian McCormack, was interested in going to Iraq. I found him standing by the copy machine in Cheney's outer office at the White House and asked him if this was true.
"It is," Brian said with a confident smile.
"Are you married?" I asked. I wasn't eager to take people with young families to Baghdad.
"Not yet," he replied. "I can be ready to leave in a week."
This is the kind of enthusiasm I need, I thought, and hired him on the spot.
Realizing I would also need some wise, experienced counsel, I thought of my old friend and colleague, Ambassador Clayton McManaway. He had been my deputy twice in the State Department, had served in Vietnam, in the Department of Defense, and knew the intelligence community. After a tour as our ambassador to Haiti, where he'd managed a difficult "regime change" himself, Clay had retired and was living in South Carolina.
With the DOD's help, I tracked him down that Friday afternoon. Clay was on a train, on his way south to a vacation in Florida.
I described my concept of the job: "Lots of long days and nights, and there's bound to be frustrating negotiations. I'm going to need a lot of help, Clay. Please come join me."
"I'll get off at the next stop and be there tomorrow, Jerry."
Next, there had to be a senior person who knew the culture and language of the Arab world. I had worked closely a decade earlier with one of the State Department's very best, Ambassador Hume Horan. I found him in happy retirement in Washington.
My pitch to him also worked, and the next day he joined my briefings at the Pentagon.
Clay and I discussed the gigantic administrative job the Coalition Provisional Authority would face. The Coalition already had over six hundred civilian employees and the staff would undoubtedly grow into the thousands.
"I know only one guy who could handle such a management challenge," I said. "Pat Kennedy."
"Absolutely," Clay agreed. We'd worked with Pat for decades at the State Department, where he was recognized as the best administrator the modern Foreign Service had produced.
Pat was serving as a deputy ambassador to the United States mission at the United Nations in New York. Would he give that up and leave his family for the uncertainties and dangers of Iraq? Through the State Department Operations Center, Clay tracked down Pat, who was on his way back from a family vacation in Mexico.
After obtaining the blessing of his boss, Ambassador John Negroponte, Pat reported, "I'll be honored to serve."
There was one final gap to fill. I knew that my work would involve intense interaction with Congress. Someone suggested that congressional expert Tom Korologos might be interested in serving in Iraq. I'd known Tom for decades and knew he would make a strong addition to the team because of the high regard he commanded in both political parties. But I doubted that at this stage in his life he would want to leave the quiet security of his lobbying practice in Washington for the dangers of life in Baghdad. To my happy surprise, Tom immediately agreed to come along. Later, we added another former State Department colleague, Bob Kelley, to the team managing the hundreds of congressional visitors to Iraq.
Less than ten days into the job, I had my personal staff and senior deputies. But I was beginning to gauge the scope of the task we faced. A chaotic power vacuum prevailed in Iraq. When Coalition tanks rolled into Baghdad, they destroyed more than Republican Guard armor and artillery. Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship, one of the world's most repressive totalitarian regimes, lay shattered, its leaders fugitives. And, while the American-led Coalition had accomplished half of its stated goal of regime change by ousting Saddam Hussein, we were far from identifying honest, energetic, and patriotic Iraqis who could govern post-Baathist Iraq.
As I was considering this situation, Jim Dobbins, a former diplomat and experienced analyst with the RAND Corporation, added another dimension when he came to my Pentagon office. "Jerry," he said, handing me a document, "you've got to see this." I knew RAND to be one of the country's most respected think tanks.
The paper was a draft RAND report estimating the troop levels that would be needed to stabilize postwar Iraq. The study was impartial, and unflinching. The professionals at RAND did not deal in rosy scenarios; they applied cold logic to problems.
The study examined the relationship between troop levels and stability during seven previous occupations, ranging from the Allies' post-World War II experience in Germany and Japan to Somalia in 1993, the Balkans later that decade, and our recent experience in Afghanistan. Although I was not a military expert, I found the conclusions persuasive. And troubling.
The historical record demonstrated that to achieve stability in the initial years after military occupation there should be twenty occupying troops for every one thousand people in the country occupied.
"The population of Iraq today," the report noted, "is nearly 25 million. That population would require 500,000 troops on the ground to meet a standard of 20 troops per thousand residents. This number is more than three times the number of foreign troops now deployed to Iraq."
The analysis was stunning. I agreed with Secretary Rumsfeld's efforts to transform the American military to meet the emerging challenges of the 21st century. Rumsfeld envisioned smaller, more agile units, augmented by "multipliers" such as precision weapons and Special Forces. And I also agreed that our forces were still better configured for the unlikely event of heavy land combat in Europe than for the contingencies we were likely to face in more remote corners of the world. Moreover, Rumsfeld's lighter and faster forces had certainly won a stunning short victory in Iraq. But did the situation on the ground in Iraq support the conclusion that we would need only a third of the occupation forces suggested by the RAND study?
That afternoon, I had a summary of the draft copied and sent it down the corridor to Don Rumsfeld. "I think you should consider this," I said in my cover memo.
I never heard back from him about the report.
The next day, Colonel Norwood and I were talking about our mission.
"You know, sir," he said, reading our staff roster, "all the civilians in Baghdad are volunteers. The job will be difficult and frustrating, and maybe even dangerous." He was right. The CPA couldn't hope to succeed unless I could inspire our people's optimism and loyalty. After mulling this over for a couple of days, I hit on a mission motto I hoped would instill optimism.
Scotty tracked down someone in the Pentagon who made the ubiquitous long hardwood desk plaques. On mine, the plaque maker affixed the phrase that visitors to my office would see for the next fourteen months: success has a thousand fathers.
During those months, I would tell my staff that I meant every word of it.
Meanwhile, there were the usual Washington leaks. News of my possible appointment had reached the media soon after my meeting with the president. Immediately the Beltway rumor mill went into high gear trying to assess my selection in relation to the ongoing turf war between Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Some stories pointed out that I had known Rumsfeld since we served together in the Ford administration. Noting that Rumsfeld had proposed me for the job to the president, they concluded that I must be "his man." Other stories, emphasizing my years in the diplomatic service where I had come to know Powell, speculated that I was really State's candidate.
President Bush was clearly aware of these rumors because the following week, just four days before I was to leave for Baghdad, he invited me to have lunch alone with him at the White House before a meeting of the National Security Council.
We ate in a small room off the Oval Office, the windows opening onto the White House lawn. We were both athletes; George Bush was a jogger and weight trainer, and I competed in triathlons and ran marathons. So we dined on a salad of pears and greens.
After a wide-ranging discussion of foreign policy issues, we focused on Iraq.
"What can I do to help you?" Bush asked.
"I need help in a couple of areas, Mr. President," I said.
First, I noted that my experience in government and the private sector made me a strong proponent of the "unity of command" principle. I could not succeed if there were others in Iraq saying they too represented the president. I was particularly concerned that a National Security Council official, Zalmay Khalilzad, who bore the title "presidential envoy," had visited Iraq in mid-April, helping Jay Garner contact political leaders. I had the impression he intended to continue visiting Iraq in his capacity as "envoy."
"Mr. President, this also means I must have full authority to bring all the resources of the American government to bear on Iraq's reconstruction."
"I understand and agree," he said immediately.
"This is going to be long and hard," I said, "a marathon, not a sprint. And I'll need your support to buy time to do a decent job."
Some people thought we could get away with a short occupation and quickly turn full authority over to a group of selected Iraqi exiles. In part, this optimism was based on the relative ease of a military campaign that had been described as "a cakewalk." And it appeared to be encouraged by the predictions of some Iraqi exiles. Just the day before, as I drove to work at the Pentagon, the lead story on the 6:00 a.m. news had been that Jay Garner had announced his intention to appoint an Iraqi government by May 15. I almost drove off the George Washington Parkway.
I knew it would take careful work to disabuse both the Iraqi and Ameri-
can proponents of this reckless fantasy what some in the administration were calling "early transfer" of power animated in part by their aversion to "nation-building." I mentioned to the president that giving Iraq a stable political structure would require not just installing democratic institutions, but also creating what I called the social "shock absorbers," institutions which form civil society a free press, trade unions, political parties, professional organizations. These, I told the president, are what help cushion the individual from an overpowering government.
"I understand," President Bush said. "And I'm fully committed to bringing representative government to the Iraqi people. We're not going to abandon Iraq." He paused, and then added emphatically, "We'll stay until the job is done. You can count on my support irrespective of the political calendar or what the media might say."
"There's one other important issue, Mr. President," I added. "Troop levels. I'm a diplomat, not a general. But I just saw a pretty persuasive draft RAND report arguing that to stabilize Iraq we'll probably need an awful lot more troops than we now have."
Bush listened carefully and noted that Secretary Powell and the State Department were trying to enlist more troops from friendly countries. "But I'll mention it," he said.
After our lunch, the president led me into the Oval Office and asked the others to join us. As they filed in the vice president, the secretaries of State and Defense, National Security Adviser Condoleezza (Condi) Rice, and Andy Card, the White House chief of staff Bush waved me to the chair beside him and joked, "I don't know whether we need this meeting after all. Jerry and I have just had it."
His message was clear. I was neither Rumsfeld's nor Powell's man. I was the president's man.
True to his word, on May 9 President Bush gave me a letter with my appointment as Presidential Envoy to Iraq with full authority over all U.S. government personnel, activities, and funds there. Rumsfeld followed up, designating me administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, empowered with "all executive, legislative, and judicial functions" in Iraq.
Those two documents, stuffed into my overloaded briefcase on the C-130 sling seat, gave me the powers I needed to do the job, and I was impatient to begin.
The plane's engine noise softened again. We'd climbed to about 500 feet. Flaps whirred, and the deck tilted beneath our feet. Then the landing gear came thumping down. We were landing in Baghdad.
My party climbed into an armor-plated Chevy Suburban in the center of a small convoy that was guarded head and tail by armored Humvees mounting machine guns and grenade launchers. Two squads of security guards in flak jackets carrying submachine guns rode in SUVs ahead and behind us. As we rolled past the bullet-pocked terminal, an evil-looking Apache helicopter gunship clattered overhead, flying top cover.
The car's air-conditioning felt chill after the blasting heat on the tarmac. Only May, I thought. What's August going to be like?
Baghdad's Airport Road, a six-lane freeway, like so much else in Iraq, had been officially named to honor Saddam Hussein. The road was almost deserted as we sped toward the city center, five miles to the east. Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles guarded some, but not all, of the overpasses and exit ramps, heat waves rippling off their dusty brown armor. A column of Humvees rolled along the westbound lanes, but there were no Iraqi vehicles on the road, only the occasional blackened hulk of a truck or Russian-built jeep that had been destroyed in the brief, savage combat to capture Baghdad.
The green highway signs in Arabic and Roman letters announcing distances to exits gave the empty road a surreal quality. We could have been in a sci-fi movie about postapocalypse Los Angeles, a city which Baghdad rivaled in size and population. Nearer the heart of the capital, I gazed up empty intersecting boulevards through the oleander hedges screening the parallel service roads. No traffic on any of those streets either. But the smoke was denser here, boiling in gray or black clouds from the sooty windows of government buildings.
Then we heard the flat crack of small-arms fire off to the right. I caught a glimpse of a dirty white pickup careering around a corner, two men clinging to a lopsided pile of furniture in the truck bed. The truck disappeared behind a stand of palms along the road's right shoulder.
"Looters," Scotty Norwood said from the backseat. "The GIs call them 'couch pushers' because they usually don't have a vehicle. I guess those guys found a truck, but it sounds like someone's defending his property."
I nodded and shook my head at the irony, remembering the arson and looting in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots of 1992. With that city's police department unable or unwilling to stop the anarchy, there had been calls for troops to restore order by force. Eleven years later in Baghdad, the Iraqi police and army had melted away, disappeared, "self-demobilized," in military jargon. And apparently, the more than 40,000 American soldiers and Marines occupying greater Baghdad didn't have orders to stop the looters.
We'd passed more than a dozen tanks and Bradleys along the Airport Road and seen other American armored vehicles and Humvees mounting machine guns parked in defensive positions north and south of the freeway. Yet we'd also just seen a pickup full of loot roaring away, challenged only by some hapless citizen firing an AK-47. One round from an Abrams tank's 120 mm cannon would have vaporized that pickup, along with the looters. But, according to the CENTCOM briefing in Qatar, we didn't yet have enough troops in Baghdad to "secure key tactical objectives" traffic circles, bridges, power plants, banks, and munitions dumps and also patrol the streets.
I remembered the words of the RAND report. This has got to change. Fast.
In many ways, it had been the initial wave of looting after Baghdad fell in April that had expedited my assignment as the Presidential Envoy in Iraq. No sooner had the euphoria among the Iraqi crowds that greeted the Marines' toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdos Square been broadcast worldwide than the international media switched to virtually nonstop coverage of the subsequent looting. It was as if the camera crews all abruptly shifted gears from images of victorious American tanks blasting through enemy positions to uninterrupted footage of ragged looters scrambling out of vandalized government buildings, hauling desks, chairs, air conditioners, crystal chandeliers, and rococo vases on their backs.
The competing cable networks, with their penchant for gripping "visuals," were pleased with their correspondents' feeds from the chaos in the streets of Baghdad. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was not amused. During a Pentagon news conference on April 11, he'd exploded.
"I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn't believe it," Rumsfeld had announced. "I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny, 'The sky is falling.' I've never seen anything like it! And here is a country that's being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they're free. The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times and you think, 'My goodness...is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?' "
But Rumsfeld's scorn concealed the first ripple of disquiet along the Pentagon's E-Ring, where the secretary's senior civilian and military staff responsible for postwar Iraq was beginning to confront the reality of occupying a large Muslim nation in the heart of the volatile Middle East.
Now, riding through the smoky afternoon heat into central Baghdad, I thought about the meeting I'd had with Jay Garner in Kuwait the night before. I had asked him and his senior staff to fly down from Baghdad and meet me at the Marriott hotel for dinner and briefings.
I took an immediate liking to Jay, an affable man with a relaxed manner, a ready smile and a Southern accent. But Jay wasn't smiling much that night. He was clearly upset by media accounts that he was being replaced because he'd mismanaged the three-week-old reconstruction. Lead stories in both the New York Times and the Washington Post that morning had reported that Washington was engaged in a wholesale purge of ORHA, including Garner.
"All these stories put me in a helluva difficult position, Jerry," Garner said.
"It's just the usual leaks, Jay," I reassured him. "People inside the Beltway with agendas and grudges."
I was sympathetic to Jay, a former soldier who had come out of retirement for no other reason than to serve his country again. I felt strongly that his service should be honored and that he deserved to be treated with respect.
But the relentless media focus on the "anarchy" in Baghdad had tainted Garner's image. It hadn't only been Rumsfeld's bugaboo the stock footage of the young looter lugging away the tall blue vase but also accounts of angry lines at gas stations and the "total" pillaging of Iraq's National Museum, where looters purportedly stole thousands of priceless antiquities dating from the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia.
Garner and his staff might have made mistakes, but he had much more experience in Iraq than I did, and I wanted a smooth transition between ORHA and the new Coalition Provisional Authority.
So Sunday night in Kuwait, over lamb and stuffed grape leaves, I had emphasized how eager I was to have him aboard. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware of the fact that I was indeed replacing him, not for his management failings, but because the president and Rumsfeld wanted someone with more political experience in charge. As a practical matter, I knew I needed to keep him around until I could get my feet under me. At the end of dinner, I felt that Jay had recommitted to staying on in Iraq until his planned departure date of June 15.
Now, twenty hours later, our convoy was rolling down the empty Qadisiya Expressway toward the Tigris and Baghdad's Al-Karkh district, a sector that had been virtually the exclusive reserve of Saddam's regime. We were headed to the ORHA headquarters Garner had set up in the sprawling Republican Palace that occupied an eighty-acre compound on a bend in the river. For better or worse, this would be the headquarters of the CPA as well.
The lead Humvee stopped at a sandbagged roadblock across the palace gate. As we crawled along the curved entrance drive between rows of unkempt royal palms, I squinted at the turquoise tile dome topping the central wing.
The structure wasn't a white elephant, as I'd feared in Washington, studying aerial photos of the site. It was a turquoise elephant.
Of the many decisions Garner had been forced to make on the fly those first days after Baghdad fell, the choice of this site was one I definitely regretted. The palace was not only impractical, being physically isolated from the professional and cultural life of the capital, it was also irrevocably associated with the Baathist regime in the minds of Iraqis. Baathist intelligence officers had tortured and executed an unknown number of dissidents in the cellars and outbuildings of this very compound. I learned that when the first group of Iraqi workers entered the palace after Liberation, they were in tears at the evidence of Saddam's profligacy.
The core of the palace was built in the 1950s, in a vulgar splurge of the country's burgeoning oil revenues. Later, Saddam Hussein had added twin crescent-shaped, colonnaded wings, tastelessly decorated in neofascist style with facing pairs of twelve-foot-high bronze statues of the dictator. These were topped with bizarre military headgear resembling the pith helmets of the British Raj.
We entered the echoing marble foyer, its gleaming floor crisscrossed with communication and power cables, and I caught a whiff of two distinct odors: diesel exhaust and overloaded portable toilets. "No electricity or running water, sir," said one of the burly security guards lugging my bags.
No air-conditioning, either. The only significant battle damage to the structure had been a direct hit on the air-conditioning plant from a heat-seeking warhead.
I was eight thousand miles and at least a century removed from home.
Later that evening, after shaking the hand of almost every one of the several thousand employees and troops stationed at the site right down to the cheerful young servicemen in the sweltering kitchen I attended an "all hands" meeting held in a vast hall in one of the palace wings.
There was no microphone, so as I stood beside Jay Garner at the head of the crowd I had to half shout to be heard. "First," I said, my words echoing off the shadowy alabaster ceiling, "I want to extend the president's deep appreciation to General Garner and his colleagues for the extraordinary work you have accomplished under the most demanding circumstances imaginable. I look forward to working with all of you on the reconstruction of Iraq."
I meant those words, but I also saw the need to reassure these exhausted, frustrated ORHA people, many of whom felt that Washington bureaucrats were scapegoating them.
Next, Garner and I joined about thirty senior staff members in a small conference room whose windows opened onto an interior courtyard that radiated back the day's heat. This would be the first CPA briefing in Baghdad. Our "Senior Advisers" were the core of the CPA, assigned to the Iraqi ministries and to work with counterpart senior Iraqi civil servants to get those ministries running again. They were a dedicated group of men and women, all of them volunteers. The light from the chandelier would fade, then swell to a glare, according to the whims of a generator that was chugging outside near the filthy swimming pool.
I sat at the head of some folding tables that had been pushed into a square. Jay and his ORHA deputy, British Major General Tim Cross, were beside me.
"You know the size of this challenge better than I do," I told them. "America and its allies haven't taken on a job this big since the occupations of Germany and Japan in 1945."
Several of the tired, expectant faces in the room nodded in somber agreement.
"Establishing law and order will be our first priority," I stressed. "The media coverage of the unchecked looting makes us look powerless." I paused. "When the American-led forces occupied Haiti in 1994, our troops shot six looters breaking the curfew and the looting stopped."
Everyone around the table was staring at me.
"I believe we should do the same thing here, even if it means changing the military's Rules of Engagement."
The group was uncomfortably silent.
"Guarding Iraqi ministries buildings and commercial concerns is a matter of great urgency. We have to work hard to get local police back on the street."
Again, I paused and then softened my tone. These were mainly Garner's people. They'd worked full tilt for weeks. The media was describing their effort as a failure.
"I want you all to know how proud I am of your service to our country and to the people of Iraq," I began. "We have one hell of a job ahead of us. And now we have to look forward, not backward."
After that effort to boost their morale, I requested a "warts-and-all" briefing. During the frantic round of meetings I'd had in Washington, I'd been briefed by representatives from the departments of Defense, State, and Treasury, by the CIA, and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But nobody had given me a sense of how utterly broken this country was.
Peter Gibson, the ORHA Senior Adviser to the Electricity Ministry, began.
"In the whole country, sir," he said, "the power plants are only generating three hundred megawatts of electricity. That's hardly enough for a small city, but this is a country of more than twenty-five million people."
"What the hell happened?" I asked. "Coalition aircraft and artillery didn't attack Iraq's power plants."
"It's complicated," he explained, and several military officers observing the meeting offered details.
Before the war, Iraq never produced enough electricity to meet demand. So the Baathists simply rationed power. Naturally the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north got the short end of the stick. And during the three-week campaign, Baathist officials and Republican Guard officers had used rolling, wide-area blackouts as a warning system that streams of American attack helicopters were flying north at night. When the electricity surged and then was cut, loyalist forces knew to fire their weapons blindly into the dark sky. These surges had severely damaged the power grid.
"And we've got a big-time looting problem," Gibson added.
Looters had ransacked power plants and substations to steal controls, gauges, and electronics. They also knocked down transmission towers for the copper cable, which, melted into ingots, sold well on the black market in Kuwait.
"Sewage?" I asked. "Water treatment?"
Equally grim. Other essential services, including trash disposal and firefighting, were spotty.
"Most schools and universities are closed," Drew Erdman, the Education Ministry adviser, added.
"Supplies of potable water are very low," Steve Browning, the CPA Health Ministry adviser, said. But he offered a more positive note. "Fortunately many hospitals and clinics are still functioning, though the lack of power hampers surgery."
One after another, the staff gave their bleak reports.
"Okay," I said. "Let's talk about the police."
Bob Gifford, adviser to the Interior Ministry, which oversaw Iraq's police, spoke in an unemotional tone. "Whatever law and order existed under Saddam has broken down completely." Three weeks of largely unchecked looting spurred by long-suppressed rage against the regime, or conducted as sabotage by Baathist "dead-enders" had destroyed many of the government buildings in Baghdad. Only the Oil Ministry had been spared, because American troops had been ordered to guard the site. It contained archives and data on the southern and northern oil fields the patrimony of the Iraqi people.
The targets of the looting were widespread. All across the country, buildings associated with the army or Saddam's multiple intelligence agencies had been flattened in many former army barracks, not a single brick stood upon another. Several dozen state-owned enterprises, especially those that had been part of the Ministry of Military Industries, had been looted down to the bare walls, even to the plumbing inside those walls.
"Where are the police?" I asked.
Gifford, a State Department expert on policing, with experience in Afghanistan, looked around at his colleagues. "In theory, there are about four thousand poorly trained officers on duty in Baghdad. But they're armed only with pistols. Most of them have just disappeared, like the army. The looters have AKs, some machine guns, and even RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. The cops are home guarding their families. Violent street crime is way up...armed robbery, kidnapping...and murders."
We were also getting many reports of sexual assault. Rape had been one brutal tool Saddam had used to control the population. In almost every police station, there'd been a rape room, and one of the busiest had been at the Baghdad Central Police Academy.
We've got to have a lot more well-armed American MPs patrolling these streets, I realized, and made a note to call General Abizaid in Qatar.
Before the session ended, I told the group that I was going to issue an order on de-Baathification soon. "And I hope to set up an Interim Iraqi administration by mid-June. But we're not going to rush into elections because Iraq simply has none of the mechanisms needed for elections no census, no electoral laws, no political parties, and all the related structure we take for granted. We've also got to get this economy moving and that's going to be a helluva challenge. A stable Iraq will need a vigorous private sector."
They all understood the scale of the task, but perhaps this was the first time it had been delineated so frankly.
"Let's keep in mind the relevant lessons of Germany and Japan. Democracies don't work unless the political structure rests on a solid civil society...
political parties, a free press, an independent judiciary, open accountability for public funds. These are society's 'shock absorbers.' They protect the individual from the state's raw power."
President Bush and I shared these goals for a free Iraq. It was just as important for all of us here to keep focused on them as it was to solve the welter of immediate crises.
"Finally," I said, closing my briefcase, "we all have to avoid arrogance, either individual or institutional. Yes, we're an 'occupying power.' No getting around that. But we must never forget that this country belongs to the Iraqis. Our goal must be to help them get their nation back on its feet as soon as possible."
Some of the men and women at the table looked inspired, some faces showed no emotion, and a few seemed dubious.
"Thanks, everyone," I said. It was late, and I needed a couple hours of sleep to fight jetlag. "We'll have a full staff meeting at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow."
Donald Rumsfeld's special assistant, Larry Di Rita, and I had been assigned a small bedroom adjacent to the temporary "Boys' Dorm," an area for senior civilian staff on the second floor. I had a cot with a mosquito net mounted on a frame above it. A powerless fan stood at the open window and effectively blocked the weak breeze. But we were lucky: the junior military were billeted, stubbly cheek by sweaty jowl, in brown general-purpose tents that sat sagging in rows on the shadeless palace grounds.
Standing beside my cot, I looked down and noticed that my black dress shoes were covered with the tan dust deposited across Baghdad by the last shamal sandstorm. The cuffs of my dark suit trousers were also dusty. Most of the men and women in the senior staff had been dressed casually, a concession to the sand, heat, and primitive laundry facilities. (We had to deposit our laundry at a pickup table "Remove Ammunition from Pockets," the sign read.)
But I intended to continue wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. I was the president's personal envoy to the people of Iraq, not a technician in a rumpled safari jacket and a baseball cap. From my assignments in Asia and Africa as a young diplomat, I'd learned that local officials even village schoolteachers in threadbare suit coats and frayed neckties dressed according to their position in society. I felt strongly that it was a mark of respect for the Iraqi people that I also would dress in the manner demanded of my position.
Even though my suits would survive the dust, dress shoes wouldn't make it in Baghdad. Tired as I was, I suddenly realized, as I prepared for bed, that I had a solution.
I had been thinking about our family farewell party three days earlier. Our kids had driven down to join us for Maryland blue crabs on our terrace, site of so many birthdays and Fourth of July gatherings. Sitting beside me were Paul, his wife, Laura, and our first grandchild, Sophia, who was just a year old. Our daughter and her husband were on either side of Francie. We were up to our elbows in crab shells, and the cold beer and white wine flowed. Little Sophia's gurgling enthusiasm lightened the underlying sadness of the occasion.
It was hard to accept that I would be away from my beloved family for so long. The baby would be talking the next time I saw her. Often I had to close my eyes to hold back the tears.
The only thing that made leaving them bearable was knowing they would hold me in their prayers, just as I would hold them, and the assurance in our faith that God, who had asked us to make this sacrifice, would give us the strength to endure it.
After the crabs, the family gave me gifts. One was a photo of Sophia in a colorful frame. When I squeezed the edge, her lilting giggle sounded from a microchip embedded in the picture.
Then Paul handed me a box and said, "These'll come in handy."
Inside were a pair of tan Timberland boots and a note reading: "Go kick some butt, Dad."
I'll start wearing those boots tomorrow, I thought in the heat of my first Baghdad night.
Before turning in, I sat down at my desk, opened my battery-operated laptop, and began my first e-mail to Francie in the glare of the fluorescent camp lantern. Over the coming months, I would send Francie an e-mail each night, no matter the hour or how tired I was. It was one way to keep us connected despite the distance that kept us apart. On this first night, I had no way of knowing if this message would make it through the unfamiliar maze of military communications.
After summarizing the kaleidoscope of impressions that I'd had over the previous fifty-six hours, I closed with a note on my new home.
Apparently, the palace conditions are much better than a week ago. We have some electricity (generators), a few bathrooms with a periodic trickle of running water (mostly it is porta-potty town). No air-conditioning, which will be a problem in about a month (it was 115 in Basra today). They have begun to bring in small trailers with running water and air-conditioning, each of which sleeps four, and had planned to put me into the first one, which was installed today. When I heard this last night in Kuwait, I gave orders for the Chief of Staff to choose four people who had been here longest and put them into the first trailer. I will bunk in where I am for the time being. It's primitive living, but not half bad compared to what it was just a few days ago...or to what the troops face.
I have begun issuing directives to sort things out. It is a managerial nightmare, but I have to move carefully so as not to offend Jay (I cannot afford to lose him now, as he would also take several key people with him). But I will gradually start up a parallel management structure to run alongside his and shift over to that in the weeks ahead.
I yawned and the words on the laptop screen blurred.
"That is about all I can manage tonight," I typed. "Love to both my blondes!"
The second blonde in my life was our Maltese dog, Minny.
I pulled aside the mosquito net and stretched out on the damp sheet. Although my head sagged into the lumpy pillow, sleep did not come as quickly as I'd expected. Instead, I lay in the stifling darkness, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the compound. Static from a military radio. The rumble of the generators. A huge truck engine starting.
The blast of small-arms fire ripped the night. A string of loud single shots across the river, the noise echoing off the walls...an even louder burst of a weapon on full automatic. Lighter taps. Another jackhammer blast of the machine gun.
I pulled back the mosquito net and groped for the earplugs from the C-130 ride. With the foam jammed into my ears, the noise of the gunfire was tolerable.
What's going on? I wondered. Looters...criminals? It was impossible to tell from this dark, isolated room.
Then I remembered a reassuring phrase from the military briefings I'd received in the past couple of weeks. "There is no indication of 'organized' resistance to the occupation, no evidence of 'command and control' among the handful of Iraqis who are shooting at our troops."
And with that comforting thought, I slipped into exhausted sleep.
Copyright © 2006 by L. Paul Bremer III