Britain 'backed US decision to disband Saddam's army'

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The British Government and military high command fully supported the controversial US policy of disbanding Saddam Hussein's armed forces after the 2003 invasion, according to Washington's former proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer.

Stung by remarks from President George Bush that he alone had been responsible for one of the most disastrous mistakes of the war while running the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Mr Bremer went to some lengths to set the record straight yesterday and provided previously unknown details of British support for the US policy.

British military officers were also enthusiastic supporters of the policy of de-Baathification – or sacking members of Saddam's Baath party from the security services, according to Mr Bremer. The policy, which he still defends, has been blamed for creating a security vacuum which enabled a Sunni as well as an al-Qa'ida insurgency to take hold. In a searing opinion article in yesterday's New York Times, Mr Bremer tried to defend himself from becoming the scapegoat for the administration's failures in Iraq.

He described a visit to London by the CPA's national security adviser, Walter Slocombe. "On 13 May, en route to Baghdad, Mr Slocombe briefed senior British officials in London who told him they recognised that the demobilisation of the Iraqi military is a fait accompli," Mr Bremer wrote. He said Mr Slocombe's report added that "if some UK officers or officials think that we should try to rebuild or reassemble the old RA [Republican Army], they did not give any hint of it in our meetings, and in fact agreed with the need for vigorous de-Baathification, especially in the security sector."

His words flatly contradict General Sir Mike Jackson's recent autobiography in which he lays the blame for the sectarian bloodbath in Iraq at the door of the US.

"We should have kept the Iraqi security services in being and put them under the command of the coalition," wrote General Jackson. "To what extent the Government communicated our concerns to the Americans I have no idea."

Mr Bremer's reflections are also at odds with Major- General Tim Cross, the most senior British officer involved in the post-war planning. He claims to have raised concerns about the possibility of Iraq falling into chaos but says they were dismissed by the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Right from the very beginning we were all very concerned about the lack of detail that had gone into the post-war plan and there is no doubt that Rumsfeld was at the heart of that process," General Cross said.

But Mr Bremer makes clear that far from opposing the policy, British officials, including the military high command, were enthusiastic backers.

There were, he says, "no organised Iraqi military units left" after the invasion and the disappearance of Saddam's old army rendered irrelevant any pre-war plans to use that army.

At that point General John Abizaid, the deputy commander of the US Army's Central Command, decided to build a new army open to both vetted members of the old army and new recruits. In mid-May 2003, Mr Slocombe was sent from Iraq to secure Washington's backing as well as that of unnamed senior British officials and military officers.

Mr Bremer argues that the decision not to recall Saddam's army was thoroughly debated at the highest echelons of government – in the US and the UK.

He says the first doubts he heard about the policy came towards the end of 2003 as the insurgency began to strike hard.

Defiant to the end, he says: "We were right to build a new Iraqi army. Despite all the difficulties encountered, Iraq's new professional soldiers are the country's most effective and trusted security force. By contrast, the Baathist-era police force, which we did recall to duty, has proven unreliable and is mistrusted by the very Iraqi people it is supposed to protect."

Senior British officers dealing with Iraq in the aftermath of the war described Mr Bremer's assertions yesterday as "disingenuous and manipulation of what happened".

The American General Jay Garner and his British number two, General Cross, were forced into leaving their posts, paving the way for Mr Bremer, they said, precisely because they refused to carry out a wholesale de-Baathification process. At the same time efforts by Generals Garner and Cross to organise civic government was, it is claimed, blocked by elements in the White House.

One senior officer, who was in Baghdad at the time, and had extensive involvement in the matter, said "This is pretty disingenuous. Of course there was broad agreement that the most extreme and senior elements of the Baath party should be got rid of. But what Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld's people wanted, egged on by some Shia politicians, was a form of blanket culling of Baath party people.

"We knew this was a grave mistake and we repeatedly told the Americans that valuable time was being lost in reconstruction and building a civic society while they pursued this line. But they had their political agenda, Bremer came in and the rest is history. Bremer now appears to be trying to manipulate what actually what happened."