WASHINGTON — A top U.S. official for aid to Iraq has accused the Bush administration of rushing unprepared into the 2003 invasion because of pressures from President Bush's approaching reelection campaign.
Robin Raphel, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq assistance, said that the invasion's timing was driven by "clear political pressure," as well as by the need to quickly deploy the U.S. troops that had been amassed by the Iraq border.
Soon after the invasion, Raphel said, it became clear that U.S. officials "could not run a country we did not understand.... It was very much amateur hour."
Her views appeared as part of an oral history project on the website of the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace. Raphel's account is one of a number that have appeared on the website this year as former officials who were among the first sent into post-invasion Iraq have begun to publicly assess the first two years of the U.S. mission.
Although the officials' views vary widely -- and some are positive about the U.S. effort -- the accounts make clear that many of the veteran diplomats who were the first to be sent to Iraq had misgivings about the effort from the beginning, with their views foreshadowing criticisms that followed months and even years later.
Many analysts speculated in 2003 that the timing of the invasion might be affected by Bush's desire to complete the war before the beginning of the 2004 political campaign. But Raphel is apparently the first government official closely involved in the effort to publicly level such an accusation.
Raphel, a 28-year veteran of the State Department's foreign service and a former assistant secretary of State, said in her account that veteran diplomats who were sent to Iraq early in 2003 shared a view that "we were not prepared."
"We went too soon. We should have waited until we built an international coalition, which we could have done if we had waited six months," she said.
But the combined pressures of politics and military requirements "made us move before we were remotely ready for the post-conflict situation," said Raphel.
In her tour in Iraq, Raphel was one of a small group of veteran diplomats brought in to help retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, then L. Paul Bremer III, establish a new government. She was the senior U.S. advisor to the ministry of trade, which was one of the most important Iraqi government agencies because it imported food and other goods that the central government distributed to the population.
Raphel didn't fully explain what led to her conclusion that reelection politics compelled the decision to go to war in March 2003. The diplomat, who plans to retire soon from the foreign service, declined through a spokeswoman to discuss the views she expressed in the Institute of Peace project.
Her oral history account appeared on the website in the spring, but was little noticed until recently. It was based on an interview in July 2004, when the United States had just returned sovereignty to the Iraqis and was portraying the mission as highly successful.
A White House official, asked about Raphel's comments, said: "The president has made clear, in more venues and on more occasions than I can count, his rationale for the war." The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with White House rules.
Raphel said she had joked to colleagues early in her tour that "within weeks, we will be on our knees to the United Nations," asking them to take over leadership of the mission.
She said that key decisions from those days, including those to disband the Iraqi army and remove from government members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, were dictated by the neoconservative views held by hawkish senior administration officials and their Iraqi exile allies.
The decisions "were ideologically based," she said. "They were not based on analytical, historical understanding."
She said she believed officials with an ideological bent kept close watch on the others.
"There were political people round and about," she said. "One had to be careful."
As months passed, she said, it became clearer that the United States could not run Iraq, and officials began making preparations to return sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in June 2004.
Another former official who served in Iraq with Raphel agreed in an interview that the veteran diplomats sent in at the time shared many of the same misgivings.
"It was a huge task and we were going about it in a fairly hapless fashion," said David J. Dunford, a State Department Middle East specialist who was put in charge of the Iraq foreign ministry in early 2003.
Among the veteran diplomats in the first group into Iraq, "we all felt pretty much the same," Dunford said.
"I don't remember thinking we went to war because of the reelection schedule, though that may have been the case," he said. Yet, "you could feel there was a drive to go to war no matter what, no matter what the facts."