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U.S. Diplomat Says There's Truth To Chilcot Inquiry Report

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This week, a British inquiry into the Iraq War delivered a withering assessment of the U.K.'s involvement in the conflict. Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the inquiry, said, quote, "it is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments." Paul Bremer is presidential envoy to Iraq, and he led the coalition's provisional authority there. He joins us on the line now. Welcome to the program, Mr. Bremer.

PAUL BREMER: Good to be with you.

NEARY: So to begin with, do you agree with the Chilcot conclusion that the decision to go to war in Iraq was based on flawed intelligence and assessments?

BREMER: Of course the flawed intelligence only became clear after the war, so it's a bit unfair, I think, as Chilcot does, to say that Prime Minister Blair made the wrong decision or, by reasoning, so did President Bush. I think that's not true.

It is - the case that the intelligence on which it was based turned out to be false, but it was a big problem because the American intelligence agencies, but also those in France, Britain, Germany, Russia, all agreed that Saddam was continuing his programs of mass destruction. So it is true, but it's pure hindsight.

NEARY: Do you still think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to threaten our national security?

BREMER: Well, we never found them.

NEARY: Right.

BREMER: So it appears the intelligence was wrong. But it is the case that after he was captured, Saddam Hussein told the interrogators that he fully intended to resume those programs.

NEARY: In that same piece in The Guardian, you do agree with some aspects of the Chilcot report. You also say more troops were needed but that Washington really didn't want to hear this.

BREMER: Well, yes, and there it seems to have been the same thing in the British case because Chilcot says that the military, right from the start - or the government anyway - was trying to reduce the number of British forces and that people who disagreed, quote, "were not heard," I think, was the term he used. And the same was true in the United States.

I cite in that article a study that was done by a respected think tank here that said we needed twice as many troops in Iraq as we had in order to provide security. And, of course, we never got those troops, and we did not adequately provide security.

NEARY: You say that the Chilcot report rightly focuses on post-war looting, and that's a security issue. Why?

BREMER: Under international law, as the occupying power, we were the government of Iraq. Any government anywhere in the world has its primary responsibility to its citizens to provide them security. When I got to Iraq, Baghdad was on fire. Iraqis had looted all of the ministries. They had burned down many police stations all over the country out of rage at the Saddam administration. And we never addressed that.

The American military had rules of engagement that were very restrictive that did not allow them to stop the looting. And that set a precedent, I think, that persuaded people who were well disposed towards the coalition to wonder if we could protect them. And it certainly helped persuade other people who went in the resistance that we were not prepared to take vigorous steps to stop them.

NEARY: I want to ask you about de-Baathification because you were one of the first proponents of that and stand by that, although you've been criticized for that policy. You disagree with the Chilcot report's assessment of it. How so?

BREMER: Well, to say I've been criticized for it is somewhat of an understatement. Yes, de-Baathification - first you have to step back. Saddam openly and publicly admired Adolf Hitler, and he admired the way he had used the Nazi Party as a political control over the German people. That's how he organized the Ba'ath Party, with all the same tricks that Hitler had used - children spying on their parents and informing on them and so forth.

So there never was any question in the pre-war planning, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, the Ba'ath Party was going to have to be outlawed. And indeed it was. Not by me, but by General Franks in his Freedom Day message about two weeks before I came back into the government. And then all it said was they couldn't be in the government anymore. They could go off and set up a business or even a newspaper if they wanted to, but they couldn't be in the government anymore.

And the mistake I made was turning the implementation of this very narrowly drafted decree over to Iraqi politicians who then seized it as a weapon to use against their enemies, which meant I had to correct that mistake some six months later when they started doing that politically. But it was the right thing to do.

NEARY: But isn't it true that a lot of disaffected Sunni Saddam supporters ended up in the ranks of ISIS?

BREMER: Well, I keep hearing that. I don't know what the concrete evidence is. I don't doubt that some of them did. But this overthrow of Saddam was not just an overthrow of Saddam. It was an overthrow of a power structure that had been there for a thousand years.

And that is why we see so many continued reverberations. There has to be reconciliation. I very strongly believe that the Iraqi government, the one now, the Shia-dominated government, must make significant efforts to show the Sunnis that they're welcome in this new Iraq.

NEARY: Paul Bremer is presidential envoy to Iraq. Thanks very much for speaking with us today.

BREMER: Nice to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.