WASHINGTON — One of the most heavily criticized actions in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was the decision, barely two months later, to disband the Iraqi army, alienating former soldiers and driving many straight into the ranks of anti-American militant groups.
But excerpts of a new biography of President Bush show him saying that he initially wanted to maintain the Iraqi army and, more surprising, that he cannot recall why his administration decided to disband it.
"The policy was to keep the army intact; didn't happen," Bush told biographer Robert Draper in excerpts published in Sunday's New York Times.
Draper pressed Bush to explain why, if he wanted to maintain the army, his chief administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, issued an order in May 2003 disbanding the 400,000-strong army without pay.
"Yeah, I can't remember; I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?' " Bush said, adding: "Again, Hadley's got notes on all this stuff" -- a reference to national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley.
Spokesmen for the White House and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to comment about the excerpts Sunday. Bremer could not be reached for comment.
Douglas J. Feith, then undersecretary of Defense for policy and an architect of the Iraq invasion, said the excerpts raised interesting questions about how the pivotal decision was made.
Feith was deeply involved in the decision-making process at the time, working closely with Bush and Bremer.
In February 2003, the month before the invasion, Feith briefed Bush about plans Rumsfeld had signed off on to maintain the Iraqi army. The assumption at the time, based on information provided by the CIA, was that the army would remain intact after the invasion, Feith said.
Instead, Iraqi officers fled their posts, which were ransacked and looted. U.S. officials inherited a military that would have to be overhauled or abandoned, Feith said in an interview Sunday, and they opted for the latter.
Feith said he could not comment about how involved the president was in the decision to change policy and dissolve the army.
"I don't know all the details of who talked to who about that," he said.
But he said the decision warrants scrutiny.
"I know there are people out there who say one of the most significant decisions the United States made [in Iraq] was the dissolution of the Iraqi army," Feith said. "So it's an interesting question. But very often on these things, until everybody writes memoirs and all the researchers look at the documents, some of these things are hard to sort out. You could be in the thick of it and not necessarily know all the details."
Feith, a visiting professor at Georgetown University, is the author of a forthcoming memoir, "War and Decision," about his work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Draper's book "Dead Certain" is to be released Tuesday.