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Behind Public Optimism on Iraq, Administration Had Doubts

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006; A01



In May, President Bush spoke in Chicago and gave a characteristically upbeat forecast: "Years from now, people will look back on the formation of a unity government in Iraq as a decisive moment in the story of liberty, a moment when freedom gained a firm foothold in the Middle East and the forces of terror began their long retreat."

Two days later, the intelligence division of the Joint Chiefs of Staff circulated a secret intelligence assessment to the White House that contradicted the president's forecast.

Instead of a "long retreat," the report predicted a more violent 2007: "Insurgents and terrorists retain the resources and capabilities to sustain and even increase current level of violence through the next year."

A graph included in the assessment measured attacks from May 2003 to May 2006. It showed some significant dips, but the current number of attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces and Iraqi authorities was as high as it had ever been -- exceeding 3,500 a month. (In July the number would be over 4,500.) The assessment also included a pessimistic report on crude oil production, the delivery of electricity and political progress.

On May 26, the Pentagon released an unclassified report to Congress, required by law, that contradicted the Joint Chiefs' secret assessment. The public report sent to Congress said the "appeal and motivation for continued violent action will begin to wane in early 2007."

There was a vast difference between what the White House and the Pentagon knew about the situation in Iraq and what they were saying publicly. But the discrepancy was not surprising. In memos, reports and internal debates, high-level officials of the Bush administration have voiced their concern about the United States' ability to bring peace and stability to Iraq since early in the occupation.

(The release last week of portions of a National Intelligence Estimate concluding that the war in Iraq has become a primary recruitment vehicle for terrorists -- following a series of upbeat speeches by the president -- presented a similar contrast.)

On June 18, 2003, Jay Garner went to see Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to report on his brief tenure in Iraq as head of the postwar planning office. Throughout the invasion and the early days of the war, Garner, a retired Army lieutenant general, had struggled just to get his team into Iraq. Two days after he arrived, Rumsfeld called to tell him that L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, a 61-year-old terrorism expert and protege of Henry A. Kissinger, would be coming over as the presidential envoy, effectively replacing Garner.

"We've made three tragic decisions," Garner told Rumsfeld at their meeting.

"Really?" Rumsfeld said.

"Three terrible mistakes," Garner said.

He cited the first two orders Bremer signed when he arrived, the first banning as many as 50,000 members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from government jobs and the second disbanding the Iraqi military. Now there were hundreds of thousands of disorganized, unemployed, armed Iraqis running around.

Third, Garner said, Bremer had summarily dismissed an interim Iraqi leadership group that had been eager to help the United States administer the country in the short term. "Jerry Bremer can't be the face of the government to the Iraqi people. You've got to have an Iraqi face for the Iraqi people," he said.

Garner made his final point: "There's still time to rectify this. There's still time to turn it around."

Rumsfeld looked at Garner for a moment with his take-no-prisoners gaze. "Well," he said, "I don't think there is anything we can do, because we are where we are."

He thinks I've lost it, Garner thought. He thinks I'm absolutely wrong. Garner didn't want it to sound like sour grapes, but facts were facts. "They're all reversible," Garner said again.

"We're not going to go back," Rumsfeld said emphatically.