WASHINGTON — In 1992, the United States launched a covert psychological warfare operation to convince regular Iraqi soldiers that they could keep their jobs if war came and they didn't fight for Saddam Hussein. For 11 years, the pledge was made in leaflets dropped from aircraft, in clandestine radio broadcasts, in covert contacts with Iraqi officers and in U.S. public statements.
But when war came, the United States broke its promises
As American forces advanced, regular Iraqi soldiers abandoned their arms and ran away in droves. Yet in one of his first orders as the American overseer of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer disbanded the entire Iraqi army.
Bremer's order deprived U.S. commanders of men they'd planned to recall to help keep order and secure Iraq's borders. It compounded the problems created by the Bush administration's failure to plan for securing Iraq and its mistaken estimate of how many American troops it would take to do that. It threw legions of angry, defeated Iraqis out of work, handed the budding anti-U.S. insurgency a recruiting windfall and fueled suspicions that America had come not to liberate Iraq, but to seize its oil.
The May 23, 2003, order was one of a succession of postwar American blunders that squandered a spectacular military victory and plunged the United States into a grinding guerrilla war at the head of the Persian Gulf and in the heart of the Islamic world.
"Every time we had a chance to do something right, we did it wrong," lamented a veteran State Department official directly involved in Iraq policy.
A comprehensive Knight Ridder review of the 14-month U.S.-led occupation and interviews with more than three dozen current and former U.S. officials and military commanders identified some of the major mistakes:
- Disbanding the Iraqi army.
- Purging tens of thousands of former Baath Party members from the government, many of whom had joined the party only to feed their families, instead of rooting out only Saddam's most loyal henchmen.
- Failing to restore public services and underestimating the mammoth task of rebuilding Iraq's shattered economy.
- Waiting too long to recognize the gravity of the insurgency, then reacting at times with excessive force that caused numerous civilian casualties, broke cultural taboos and turned Iraqis against the U.S.-led occupation.
Iraq's interim president, Ghazi al Yawer, summed up the feelings of many Iraqis when he said: "We blame the United States 100 percent for the security in Iraq. They occupied the country, disbanded the security agencies and for 10 months left Iraq's borders open for anyone to come in without a visa or even a passport."
"We paid a big price for not stopping (the looting) because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," Bremer conceded in an Oct. 4 speech in West Virginia.
By the time Bremer transferred power to U.S.-backed interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi on June 28, 80 percent of Iraqis wanted the Americans to leave, according to a poll by the Baghdad-based Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies.
The current and former officials, many of whom supported the invasion, stressed that the U.S.-led coalition has brought major improvements to millions of Iraqis.
More than 3,500 schools have been refurbished and more than 70 health care facilities built. An estimated 80,000 Iraqis are employed in U.S.-funded projects such as sewer construction, and the economy is picking up. Power generation and telephone hookups surpass pre-war levels.
Bremer, they said, worked diligently to get reconstruction on track and prepare a return to Iraqi self-rule. He directed a difficult transition process, overseeing the establishment of 26 government ministries, a reformed court system and new local governments. The U.S. military also carried out hundreds of humanitarian and reconstruction projects.
But current and former officials said that U.S. missteps offset all these accomplishments. The violence simply outpaced the American efforts to win a critical mass of Iraqi hearts and minds.
"This thing evolved in front of us. And each day it got incrementally worse until it exploded," said Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who spent a year overseeing the training of a new Iraqi army.
How did a war that had begun so brilliantly go so wrong?
Almost all the officials who agreed to discuss the question requested anonymity, but all of them agreed that the trouble started with the Pentagon's failures to plan for postwar Iraq or deploy enough troops to control the country.
After Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003, U.S. troops were exhausted by combat, unprepared to handle civil disturbances and without clear orders. They secured such facilities as Baghdad's oil and interior ministries, but largely stood by as looting, arson and murder convulsed the capital and other cities and towns.
There weren't enough soldiers to guard an estimated 1 million tons of weapons and ammunition, which ended up in open arms bazaars and in the hands of resistance groups.
"We never truly established order in the post-war period," said Larry Diamond, a former political adviser with Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority. "I just saw an effort that was going badly wrong."
Iraqis who'd expected the American-led occupation to bring a rapid return of power, water and fuel supplies and relief from poverty, fear and violence instead saw their lives threatened and their national treasures looted. What many Iraqis thought was American indifference seemed to confirm that the United States only wanted Iraq's oil.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed the chaos. "Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things," he said two days after Saddam's statue was pulled down in Baghdad's central Fardos Square. "Stuff happens."
U.S. military commanders had planned to recall some of the 400,000-strong regular Iraqi army to help. They understood that the army had disintegrated and that its barracks had been bombed or stripped of furniture, wiring, plumbing and even roofs.
But they believed that Iraqi soldiers could be registered in their hometowns and paid stipends to repair their bases and enforce order. A dozen senior Iraqi generals offered their help.
"There may have been a moment where we could have salvaged the army," said Eaton.
Bremer declined repeated requests for an interview. But his former spokesman, Dan Senor, defended the decision to disband the army as critical to winning the cooperation of majority Shiite Muslims and minority Kurds who'd suffered massive repression at the hands of Saddam's minority Sunni Muslim officer corps. Reconstituting the army could have triggered a massive wave of reprisals, he said.
The vast majority of Iraqi troops, however, were Shiite conscripts, and U.S. commanders said they could have identified and weeded out war criminals and Baathist hardliners as the army was retrained and restructured.
The decision to purge the entire army sparked disillusion and insecurity among the Sunnis, who comprise 20 percent of Iraqis and dominate the country's heartland.
Saddam's ouster deprived Sunni Muslims of the power and status they'd enjoyed since Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Sunnis also were deeply unsettled by President Bush's plan to hold democratic elections, which could bring to power a government dominated by a Shiite majority.
Those fears, and America's inability to start putting Iraq back on its feet, were compounded by a second major blunder.
In his first order as the top American civilian in Iraq, Bremer outlawed Saddam's Baath Party under a plan that had been devised by the Pentagon. He established a process designed to screen out the most senior members of Saddam's government. It was supposed to affect no more than 2 percent of Baath Party members, said a former senior CPA official.
The 25-member, U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, however, entrusted the de-Baathification program to Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shiite and Pentagon favorite whose Iraqi National Congress had provided the Bush administration with bogus information on Saddam's weapons programs and assurances that Iraqis would greet American troops as liberators. Chalabi has said his group vetted the information as best it could.
Chalabi "completely bypassed this whole structure," said the former CPA official, and purged some 30,000 civil servants, including 12,000 teachers and school administrators. Many of them had no blood on their hands.
Asked if Chalabi's role in the administration's missteps in Iraq has been exaggerated, a senior intelligence official thought for a moment, then said: "No."
"Everything he touched, he corrupted," added the former CPA official. Chalabi has denied there was any corruption in the de-Baathification program.
Several current and former officials said the Pentagon's decision to award the most lucrative reconstruction contracts to well-connected U.S. firms further fueled Iraqi anger and mistrust.
Those firms, led by Halliburton, which Vice President Dick Cheney once led, imported Americans to drive trucks for $10,000 a month while unemployed Iraqi doctors and engineers would happily have done the same job for $200 a month, said one Iraqi-American who worked closely with American officials.
The Pentagon also failed to quickly set up credible broadcast outlets to compete with media that were feeding Iraqis misleading information about American actions and intentions.
All these mistakes, coupled with a limited influx of foreign terrorists eager to make holy war on the Americans in Iraq, fueled the growth of the insurgency, both in numbers and in sophistication. However, officials and commanders took too long to recognize the gravity of the situation, former and current senior administration officials said.
"The reason I don't use the phrase guerrilla war is because there isn't one," Rumsfeld said on June 30, 2003. Less than a month later, Army Gen. John Abizaid, who succeeded Gen. Tommy Franks as the head of the U.S. Central Command, acknowledged a "guerrilla-type campaign."
The U.S. military responded with major counterinsurgency sweeps that included air strikes and Israeli-style demolitions of suspected rebels' homes.
Despite great efforts to avoid civilian casualties, the U.S. operations killed and injured large numbers of non-combatants, especially in the Sunni Triangle, the deeply conservative region bounded by Baghdad, Fallujah and Samarra that had been a cornerstone of Saddam's power.
U.S. troops kicking down doors violated cultural taboos, including male soldiers searching women and soldiers searching houses when only women were at home.
A senior pro-U.S. Iraqi official recalled that he and other Iraqis watched in disgust and outrage as American soldiers washed with imported bottled water and gave it to their guard dogs while Iraqis suffered from summertime water and power shortages.
Disdain for the United States soared, bringing more recruits to the resistance, including former professional soldiers and intelligence officers angered by the dissolution of the army and by Chalabi's de-Baathification campaign.
These men helped to transform disparate cells of former Baathists, criminals and jobless youths willing to kill for pay into guerrilla organizations that adapted to the U.S. military's tactics, techniques and procedures.
"These disgruntled military personnel with no profound sympathy for the defunct regime but outraged over the loss of status, privilege and jobs . . . were increasingly active in the ranks of the insurgency. Senior or mid-level officers would often act as mentors or advisers for cells of novice but enthusiastic insurgents," wrote Ahmed S. Hashim, a Naval War College professor and a reserve Army lieutenant colonel who interviewed rebels for a June 2004 study of the insurgency.
"The response of U.S. forces was to go after the former regime insurgents with greater vigor," he wrote.
The Sunni clergy "shed its traditionally insignificant role in the affairs of the community," wrote Hashim. "The insurgency has benefited tremendously from a fusion between nationalist and Islamic sentiments among the Sunnis."
Administration officials had failed to anticipate this challenge, too, and they scrambled to supply U.S. troops with more body armor and armored Humvees for protection against increasingly sophisticated homemade bombs and rocket-propelled grenade attacks.
But they supplied little protection for the Iraqi police force, which the United States was trying to rebuild as part of a plan to create security forces that could take over from the U.S.-led coalition.
Not only did the police lack vehicles, weapons and radios, but there also were scant resources to vet, pay and train competent officers.
In many cases, U.S. commanders had to use their limited reconstruction funds to hire police officers, many of them illiterate and with no experience.
"It was a bunch of brave Iraqis in thin, blue shirts carrying old weapons, and it was a shame," said Eaton, who took over police training in March as part of a massive reorganization effort. "What I inherited was a non-program."
In another critical oversight, Bremer and the White House failed to act quickly to blunt the rise of Muqtada al Sadr, a thuggish young Shiite Muslim cleric whom many Iraqis despised when he began challenging the U.S.-led occupation.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said interim Prime Minister Allawi, a member of the Governing Council at the time and a secular Shiite Muslim, convinced Bremer and White House officials that al Sadr could be persuaded to join Iraq's fledgling political process.
Instead, al Sadr continued to build his Mahdi Army militia in Baghdad and in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Finally, when the U.S.-led coalition arrested one of his top aides, al Sadr called out his troops, forcing American troops to fight Shiite militiamen in Najaf while they were battling Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and Ramadi.
Al Sadr's men were no match for American firepower, and they fell in droves, but the longer his militia fought, the more respect and followers he won.
"You got this grinding erosion of security that hit a crescendo," remembered Eaton, the Army major general. "It was like a baseball bat right between the eyes."
The fighting in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq and in Fallujah ended in cease-fires. The Shiite and Sunni guerrillas kept their weapons, and U.S. forces agreed to withdraw from Najaf and Fallujah, essentially turning Fallujah over to the resistance.
In April, the United States lost whatever credibility it had left with the publication of photographs depicting U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison, a leading symbol of Saddam's despotism, sexually abusing and humiliating Iraqi detainees.
The Bush administration and Iraq's interim government have now pinned their hopes of defeating the insurgents on January elections for an interim national assembly that is to write a new constitution. The United States has accelerated the training of a new Iraqi army and police force in an effort to ensure that the elections can be held and the country can be stabilized enough to permit an eventual American military withdrawal.
(This report was reported by Knight Ridder's Joseph L. Galloway, Jonathan S. Landay, Warren P. Strobel and John Walcott, with research by Tish Wells.)