Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Ambassador to Iraq delivers upbeat spin on its future

Express Staff Writer

L. Paul Bremer

Four U.S. Secret Service men stood sentry as nearly 600 people filled the pews Friday night in the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood.

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer delivered an address to the Ketchum audience about the 14 months he'd spent in Iraq as America's coalition administrator, or proconsul. He was appointed in May 2003 following the fall of Baghdad in "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Bremer is a dapper, conservative-looking man who seems to approach his talks as if he were in a large university lecture hall and the audience might want to take notes for the quiz to come later. As a diplomat, he is well spoken and careful with a very clear agenda. He is on a brief tour of the West Coast to promote his book, "My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope."

Bremer's perspective is a unique one. As such, the audience was attentive while he related some inside details of his time in Iraq and how things have progressed since. Without much preamble, he attacked his well-thought-out lecture.

"The collapse of the Saddam regime was one of the most dramatic collapses in history, from tyranny to freedom in three very short weeks.

"As I assessed the situation on the ground it was clear we needed to get Iraq on the path of political reform."

The political and psychological situation was intense. Apparently, Saddam Hussein modeled the Baath Party on the Nazi Party. In fact, required reading was "Mein Kampf."

"However, Saddam was in power three times as long as Hitler," he said. "This affected the very soul of the Iraqi people."

Bremer's daughter advised, "You're dealing with an entire nation dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Iraqi elections are a "remarkable tribute to the Iraqis' determination. The Iraqis have followed that path in every way, (even when) the terrorists said to them, 'You vote, you die.'"

Bremer said he knew from the start that Iraq's security must be in the hands of the Iraqis, but that patience should prevail.

"In the book I express some concern in the fall of 2003 that some in our government were overestimating the capability of these forces in the hopes that in the spring of 2004 we could lessen the number of American forces. Presidents and secretaries of state tend to follow the advice of their military experts.

"I had a different view and I made my view very clear."

Bremer said he remains optimistic about Iraq's future. "The vast majority is delighted to be liberated. More important than my optimism is the Iraqi people's optimism."

Not adverse to a subtle joke, Bremer's remarks sometimes were greeted by huge laughs.

"Some of you may have read recently that there were skirmishes going on between the (two main insurgency) groups. I, for one, welcome this and I wish them much success.

"The bottom line is that it's a conflict between Iraq and Iran, Arabs and Persians. It's been going on thousands of years. But no more than 14 percent support Islamic extremism."

Bremer called the Iraqi Constitution a remarkable document.

"It establishes structure in the political life and balances power in the government between Baghdad and the provinces. It gives robust protection of civil liberties and establishes a rule of law."

Being in Iraq was like driving down a ragged mountain road, Bremer said. "You don't have time to look in the rear view mirror."

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