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House panel grills Bremer on Iraq policy

A Democratic majority asks about sketchy accounting controls and fallout from disbanding the Iraqi army.

February 07, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As the chief of the occupation government in Iraq four years ago, L. Paul Bremer III cut a dashing figure in his combat boots and elegant suits. He wore a confident smile, and his aggressive efforts to build a new order in Iraq had wide support in Washington.

On Tuesday, Bremer sat before a committee on Capitol Hill, wearing black loafers and a somber expression as he tried to defend his reputation before an unhappy Democratic majority.

The veteran diplomat -- now a symbol of the changing fortunes of the administration's war -- was summoned as the first witness before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as it launched an effort to provide a new aggressive oversight of the White House's Iraq policy.

After Bremer ended his 13-month tour in June 2004 with the handover of sovereignty to a new Iraqi government, many observers came to believe that the Coalition Provisional Authority, under his leadership, was responsible for decisions that have proved devastating to the war effort.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), committee chairman, wanted to know how the coalition authority could have shipped $12 billion in Iraqi oil money from New York to Baghdad and handed it over to Iraqi ministries with only the sketchiest accounting controls. The cash, all 363 tons of it, was shrink-wrapped into $400,000 bricks and carried on C-130 cargo planes.

"Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?" Waxman asked. And with limited oversight, he said, "we have no way of knowing whether the cash shipped into the Green Zone ended up in enemy hands."

Sitting next to Bremer at the witness table was Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who reported two years ago that the administration, despite its own guidelines, had failed to require sufficient "transparency" from the Iraqi ministries concerning their plans for the money. The coalition authority, according to Bowen's report, ended up with "virtually no documentation" for the spending.

Bremer acknowledged that tighter controls would have been preferable, but insisted that the first priority was to flush enough cash through the ministries -- for government salaries, pensions and small reconstruction projects -- to revive the Iraqi economy. Trying to establish American-style accounting controls was impossible, he said, given the need for speed and the primitive state of Iraqi records and banking system.

"As so often in Iraq, the ideal collided with the harsh realities on the ground," Bremer said. "Our top priority was to get the economy moving again."

He insisted that even if the money had been misused or stolen, the coalition authority had at least lived up to its responsibilities by turning the money over.

Bremer defended the coalition authority, saying it had made "great progress under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable." But he was willing to assign blame to Pentagon officials who, he said, had made his job more difficult.

Reconstruction "proved to be harder than anticipated because American prewar planning had not anticipated the enormity and difficulty of the tasks ahead of us," he said.

Bremer's reputation has come under fire because of two actions by the coalition authority: dissolving the Iraqi army and firing government officials, even lower ranking ones, who had belonged to Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party. Those two steps, critics argue, alienated Iraqis, led to greater unrest and fed the insurgency.

On Tuesday, Bremer defended both moves.

Under Hussein, he said, the army had been the tool of repression against the Kurds and the Shiites, and trying to restore it would have alienated the 80% of Iraqis who are in those two groups.

Rebuilding the army was far preferable, he said, although he acknowledged that the coalition authority should have moved more quickly to reassure troops that they would continue to receive stipends.

He said that the de-Baathification plan was not harsh and that it called for excluding only about 1% of top party members from government jobs. But the Iraqis who were given control of the process took it much further, he said.

"It was the right policy, wrongly implemented," he said.

Asked about the size of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Bremer acknowledged that he had, on several occasions, privately asked for an increase in military personnel. "Our most fundamental responsibility was security," he said.

After the hearing, Bremer said that he had appeared before the panel voluntarily, hoping to set the record straight, and that he thought the committee had a "useful" attitude on the issue. At the same time, he added, "I can't say it's comfortable."

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