The day I almost led the Iraqi army

Right after the fall of Baghdad, hundreds of desperate disbanded troops asked me -- a middle-aged journalist -- to give them jobs. That's when I knew everything was going terribly wrong.

Published November 23, 2004 11:07PM (EST)

When people ask me what went so wrong in Iraq, as they frequently do after learning that I reported from there early in the war, I offer a glib reply: "Let me tell you about the day I almost led the Iraqi army." Then I commence my very strange story, one that never fails to amuse, bewilder and ultimately dishearten anyone who has ever wondered why combat that was supposed to end on May 1, 2003 -- you know, "Mission Accomplished" -- still rages with no end in sight.

After a 375-mile taxi ride from Basra, Iraq, I found myself in Baghdad on May 1, squinting in the bright morning sunshine, when I noticed that my war correspondent credential had also expired, as if everything would be over by Pentagon fiat the same moment a flight-suited President Bush touched down on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. But within days I was writing about the frustration of our thinly spread troops, who felt helpless to prevent rapes, kidnappings, looting and gunplay in the streets. Not only was the social order fraying rapidly, but Iraqis complained vociferously about the lack of relief supplies, electricity and clean water.

In several hospitals, sobbing mothers presented their dying children to me, blaming America for empty promises. The kids were dehydrated from easily treatable diarrhea brought on by contaminated water. But medical supplies, rationed Soviet style during Saddam's time, had run out; there wasn't even propane gas to boil water for drinking.

One of the first things you learn upon visiting an Arab home is the enormous value placed upon hospitality. Yet we invaded a sovereign country, but didn't bother to bring gifts. If we could pull off the Berlin airlift, I wondered, why couldn't we get 1,000 electrical generators and 100 water trucks into Baghdad? No official I talked to offered a good explanation.

Despite the euphoria in the White House over Iraq's liberation, on the ground I kept hearing this refrain: "It was better under Saddam." Given my opinion of the dictator, that was shocking to hear -- but I had lessons to learn about Arab pride and Iraqi culture. "Many young people I know cried when his statue fell," a student in her mid-20s told me as we talked by candlelight inside her apartment. (She was afraid to venture outside for fear of rape.) "He was Baba Saddam -- Father Saddam -- and he was all we ever knew."

Because U.S. postwar planning was so meager, Iraqis who wanted to help the Americans often found nowhere to turn. The coalition haughtily -- and foolishly -- ensconced itself on Saddam's old palace grounds (it's now called the Green Zone), where few Baghdadis would ever willingly tread, and fewer still wished to brave checkpoint after checkpoint to enter. Filling crucial civilian-military assistance and liaison roles were Special Operations reservists, some thrown into the chaos with little or no expertise in their assignments. I recall meeting an aircraft specialist in civilian life who was suddenly, according to the logic of the U.S. Army, supposed to run a water-purification plant.

In those confused days, I met a thin, mustachioed former Baghdad cop who'd been leading pro-democracy marches near the Palestine Hotel. A Shiite who had run afoul of Saddam's intelligence forces (and bore torture wounds as a result), Lt. Sabih Azzawi told me he had tried four times, without success, to convey intelligence about the whereabouts of the still at large Iraqi dictator. Azzawi, who maintained many connections among police and military officers, wanted to help U.S. troops secure the peace and invited me to meet a group of Iraqis of the same mind.

On May 8, I joined him at a looted officers club downtown, where disbanded Republican Guard and regular Iraqi army troops had been gathering for days, lured by rumors that the U.S. government wanted to put them back to work. That morning I slung my U.S. House and Senate press badge around my neck -- big mistake. Thinking I'd come to offer jobs, pensions and back wages, upward of 200 angry soldiers, bellowing that they'd been duped and betrayed by President Bush, besieged me and my translator.

"If the American government will not solve our problems, the Iraqi army will fight, and we don't care if half of them die," shouted a squat, bald colonel named Salem Yassin. "We cannot wait for a long time. We can all organize again -- as suicide attackers or whatever." Bara Kamel, who had built guided missiles for Saddam, warned in response, "You will create terrorists." Over and over, the officers encircled me, backed me up (sometimes menacingly) and made these points: "This isn't the result we deserve! We walked away and didn't fight as you asked! We followed your orders!"

Hotheads in the mob called for an immediate march on the occupation headquarters. Lt. Azzawi, whom they picked as their leader, climbed atop a crate to calm the crowd. He insisted I join him. My translator, Naseer Nouri, a burly ex-Iraqi Airways flight engineer, could barely hear me above the bellowing officers, but he shot me a glance suggesting I should take the offer. I had no military experience, no idea what to say, but somehow it made sense to be in an elevated position with Azzawi. So I climbed on my soapbox and repeated the few Arabic words I knew: "Sahafa Amirikya." American reporter. "Jareeda." Newspaper. Just here to get a story!

But the call came back: "We need orders!" Which, of course, is what all good soldiers crave.

"Should we march, Mr. Richard?" Azzawi asked me. Here was a dilemma I'd never faced before and certainly never would again. I'd earned a measure of respect from the men, if only because I was polite enough to hear and write down their grievances. (And bear in mind, they had no idea what a free press was -- many probably thought I was taking their names for the rumored jobs list.)

Certainly I couldn't give orders, not to this ex-enemy army or any other. But I could provide a bit of basic P.R. advice. "Do you have protest signs?" I asked Azzawi. "Do you have a petition? You need a plan. If you just show up, the Americans will have no idea what you want. If you march unannounced, you might end up getting shot."

I advised him and his followers to postpone the march for a few days, prepare some signs in English, and alert the Arab TV networks of their goals and demands. Just make sure everyone referred to it as a "peaceful march," I said. Maybe I had crossed some sort of line, but I looked at it this way: Ostensibly, my country had invaded their country to give them democracy. I was just teaching the Iraqis a lesson in how to petition and peaceably assemble.

After the crowd dispersed, my translator flashed a huge grin. "Mr. Richard," he said, "today you commanded the Iraqi army!"

"Naseer," I told him, "please do me a favor. Never tell anybody about this."

The next day, a mild-mannered officer by the name of Ammar Hamed came to my hotel room. He had taken my democracy lessons to heart. He presented me with a proudly drafted petition, which he had titled "The Requests of Iraqi Military Forces," and which I have kept on my office wall to this day. In fractured English, 1st Lt. Hamed wrote:

"We can get the security where work in pairs (American troops) with Iraqi Army. We can bilt a new Iraqi Ministry of Defence ... We can make the Iraqi Army become a strong with the help of American Army, so Iraqi Army will interduce the good succeded and make security to still for a long time. Then lend with American troops the rest and help Iraqi police ...

"In the end, thank you, with best regards for the President and with all American troops ... and we are get back together the life and every thinks to best and make good."

Today it brings me enormous sorrow to recall that modest man's dreams for the future security of Iraq. Where is he now? Dead? Fighting for us? Fighting for them? All I know is, Azzawi, Hamed, Yassin and the other petitioners had little chance of getting their message across. A few days later, they marched the five miles from the officers club, across the Tigris River, to the gates of the Green Zone, hoisting signs that called on retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, then the U.S. administrator in Iraq, to meet with them, pay their salaries and endorse their plan to help America keep the peace. I marched with them, taking notes and pictures.

With a single gunshot, a U.S. soldier halted the 100-strong group outside the gates. A small delegation was invited to meet with Army Maj. Gen. Carl Strock, who told Azzawi and his followers through an interpreter, "We honor your service."

But given the arrival of L. Paul Bremer, Garner's replacement, the next day, these were empty words. There would be no jobs for them. My friend Azzawi met several more times with American officials, until it became clear they had no intention of even paying his taxi fare for helping to make connections among trustworthy members of the Iraqi police, his Iraqi army followers and the U.S. authorities. He took great risks to help America secure the peace and was kicked to the curb.

The men marched by the thousands in subsequent weeks, holding signs that read, "We Demand Our Rights" and "Please Keep Your Promises." After four months without pay, they were desperate to feed their families. On June 18 a stone-throwing riot erupted and U.S. military police killed two demonstrators. If America had any friends left among this group, I can't imagine they stayed friendly after that.

The Iraqis thought I'd come to the officers club on behalf of Garner, the first head of the occupation authority. Garner did indeed have a plan to hire and train mustered-out Iraqi troops; many months later I learned that a list of 300,000 names had been prepared. But at that very moment, unknown to me, Washington had decided to scrap the entire program. In a few days Garner would have his legs cut out from under him by the Bush administration; Bremer, committed to absolute "de-Baathification," was the president's new pick.

"Bremer just sort of arrived out of the blue," recalls Stephen Claypole, a former public affairs aide to Garner. "Jay was visibly shaken." He told me Garner was "second-guessed" and "micromanaged into oblivion by a ruthless, steely long finger from the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office."

As we now know, disbanding the Iraqi military, leaving 400,000 troops jobless and humiliated with ready access to their old weapons, was a huge blunder -- as was committing too few of our own forces in the first place (something even Bremer now acknowledges). Because Iraq had no secure borders, outside provocateurs could sow mayhem. Without an indigenous security force, the much-publicized big reconstruction projects couldn't proceed. Stoked by a lack of air conditioning, refrigeration and staples such as medicine and gasoline, the anger of average Iraqis soon would be boiling over. Throw in a nascent insurgency by both Sunnis and Shiites, and it is easy to understand how our great, optimistic enterprise in Iraq went awry.

Claypole, a Briton who advised both Garner and Major Gen. Tim Cross, the top British official in Baghdad, put it this way: "You would have to go several times around the world to find somebody more pro-American than me, but I still squirm with embarrassment and blush with shame when I think of the failure of the USA and my country to make proper preparations for the aftermath of the war in Iraq."

I left the country a year and a half ago, yet security is far worse now, and even electrical service remains spotty. Sewage still contaminates the drinking water in Baghdad. According to the reports of humanitarian organizations, chronic malnutrition affects some three out of 10 children in Iraq, particularly in the central and southern regions.

This cascade of failures was well hashed over in the presidential race. But few Americans realize how hungry, at one time, Iraqi military men were for direction of any kind. When I showed up in their midst a month after the Saddam statue fell, they started asking me -- the only American most had probably ever seen except in combat -- how they could get their message of cooperation to Garner.

During the Republican National Convention, I asked Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot whether postwar operations could have been better handled by our best and brightest -- specifically whether disbanding the Iraqi army was a mistake. "No," he said, staring at me with some annoyance, "I think they did an exceptionally good job." Predictably, he gave the president "excellent marks" for all phases of the war. Racicot did concede, however, that "there are always going to be unexpected consequences in any war."

But the urgent need to rebuild and reintegrate a defeated force is far from an "unexpected consequence." Winning the peace is well taught in our military war colleges. When I told Garner about Racicot's remarks, he immediately offered two words: "He's wrong."

With a tinge of anger in his voice, Garner went on: "There was a plan to bring back the Iraqi army. I briefed Condi [Rice] on it. I briefed the president. I briefed [Paul] Wolfowitz. Everyone agreed on it. We had budgeted to pay the Iraqi army; Carl Strock had rounded up the Iraqi army to pay them. We had also lined up training for the regular Iraqi army." A Virginia-based defense contractor that had retrained the Croatian army after the Bosnian war was all set to do a similar job in Iraq.

What happened? Even now, Garner doesn't seem entirely sure, or won't say. He says he was never told why he fell from favor. "A lot of stuff in that Pentagon operation is clandestine," he said, referring to the machinations of the civilian leadership that prosecuted the war. "And the vice president's office is a shadowy organization."

Clearly, whatever enthusiasm Garner once had for the Bush administration is long gone. I didn't tell him my own story: how I was mistaken for his emissary those many months ago. I didn't have the heart. Because, think about it: If a middle-aged, unarmed journalist who never served a day in uniform could have commanded the Iraqi army after the fall of Saddam, just imagine what might have happened if we'd only done one or two things right.

By Richard Leiby

Richard Leiby was a non-embedded journalist who covered the war from Kuwait and Iraq for the Washington Post. He now writes the paper's "Reliable Source" column.

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