Bremer: Zarqawi’s Death a ’Very Important Moment’ in War on Terrorism

L. Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after Saddam’s ouster, says the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a " very important moment" in the war on terrorism and the effort to secure Iraq. Bremer says it may temporarily "put a crimp" in al-Qaeda activities in Iraq but does not mean an end to the insurgency.

June 8, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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L. Paul Bremer III, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq from May 2003 until June 2004, says the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al- Qaeda leader in Iraq, is a "very important moment" in the war on terrorism and the battle to secure Iraq. Bremer says it may temporarily "put a crimp" in al-Qaeda activities in Iraq but does not mean an end to the insurgency. "It has got to be defeated. That remains a strategic problem in Iraq."

Bremer, who wrote a book, My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, about his experiences, says the biggest problem now is sectarian violence. "The problem that has evolved over the last year is that the coalition and the nascent Iraqi security forces have not been able to deal successfully with the insurgency, and particularly with Zarqawi," Bremer says. "Because they haven’t been able to deal with that, the Shiite militia started to take things into their own hands, and that’s a different problem than we had two years ago. And it is a more difficult problem in some ways."

How important is the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq?

I think it’s a very important moment in the war on terrorism, and in the battle to get a more secure Iraq, which are two [separate] things. It will certainly, I think, put a crimp in the operational capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq, at least for some time, and, again, our experience with terrorist groups is that when you can decapitate the leadership of a terrorist group it really does provide a time when the operations become very much less obvious, and sometimes the organization actually collapses, so it’s good news. We do have to focus on the insurgency, though. It has got to be defeated. That remains a strategic problem in Iraq.

I remember reading in your memoir about the excitement you had when you got the word Saddam Hussein had been captured in December 2003, and you made the announcement to the press. Did you get that same kind of exultation this morning when you heard about the death of Zarqawi?

I think the significant difference—and there I was very pleased—was that this step was announced by a democratically elected Iraqi prime minister, and I think that’s a very important difference.

Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki was able this morning to get his nominees for the defense, interior, and national security jobs approved. So now Iraq finally has a functioning government.

Yes. I think it’s a happy day that they have both killed this murderer, and he’s completed his cabinet. It shows the political process is going forward.

Let’s talk a little bit about Zarqawi because he really started on your watch. He wasn’t even known until later in the summer of 2003. How much control do you think he actually had over the insurgency?

I think it’s important to distinguish three sources of violence. One is al-Qaeda. The other is the indigenous insurgency, and the third one more recently has been the sectarian militias. The first two, I think, had some operational coordination. Certainly, I think people who sympathize with the insurgency—and those are Iraqi Sunni Arabs almost entirely—have provided safe haven and perhaps logistical support to some of these al-Qaeda terrorists. The al-Qaeda terrorists are pretty much one hundred percent non-Iraqi Sunni Arabs. So there’s some operational coordination between the two. The impact on the overall insurgency, I think, is hard to assess. The impact on al-Qaeda could be, at least in the short term, fairly significant, though I don’t expect to see the violence stop. I don’t think it will stop because of this.

In fact, do you think it might even increase for a while?

That’s possible. What we saw after Saddam’s capture, which I mentioned in my book, was a rather significant drop-off in insurgent attacks in the month following Saddam’s capture, about a twenty-five percent drop-off.

Saddam’s capture was really quite a big moment. I guess most Americans thought, wrongly as it turned out, that would really put an end to the resistance. I guess people didn’t realize Saddam at that point really wasn’t running much.

Well, it was pretty clear to us that he wasn’t. It had been clear to us through our intelligence that he wasn’t operationally running the thing because he was on the run, and of course we found him in a hole where he’d been for six weeks. He certainly wasn’t running the resistance from there. We used his capture to look for ways to reach out to the insurgency through reconciliation processes, some of which I described in my book, and some of which had some initial favorable responses. So this kind of an event does offer opportunities, and I’m sure the new government in Baghdad will try to take advantage if them.

As your term of office drew to a close, I guess the sectarian militias were really becoming of greater concern to you, the Shiite militias in particular. You seemed to be really upset that there really wasn’t a crackdown on Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia.

During the fourteen months of the Coalition Provisional Authority we had very, very few—only a handful—of confirmed sectarian murders anywhere in the country. We did have a sectarian militia we were worried about, which was Muqtada’s, but it was not because he was a Shiite killing Sunnis. It was because he was killing Americans and torturing and killing his own people, most of them Shiites.

The problem that has evolved over the last year is the coalition and the nascent Iraqi security forces have not been able to deal successfully with the insurgency, and particularly with Zarqawi, who had, you know, targeted Shiites. Because they haven’t been able to deal with that, the Shiite militia started to take things into their own hands, and that’s a different problem than we had two years ago. And it is a more difficult problem in some ways.

The hope now is that the government can clean up the interior ministry. A number of the Shiite militias are working through the interior ministry police forces. That’s a high priority, I would guess.

Yes it is, and we will obviously now have to see how all this works out. I think it is good that Maliki has now finished rounding out his cabinet, putting the security people in place. I was impressed by the prime minister’s resolution—very firm resolution—to continue and defeat the insurgency. He was very clear, and I think that’s a good sign too.

And I think it was interesting that he went down to Basra last week to say he wanted to crack down on violence in that part of the country, which I don’t think most Americans even realized was a problem.

Yes. There’s another thing that may have escaped notice, which is that when Abdul-Qadir Muhammed Jasim [al-Mifarji], the new minister of defense, who is a Sunni, was announced, he made it very clear he intended to work for all Iraqis. And I think that’s the approach that we have to see.

But what about politically in the United States? Obviously the president’s poll numbers have been abysmal in the last couple of months, particularly over Iraq. Is it important for his numbers to rise to get support for this ongoing effort?

Well, you know, my experience with this president on the question of Iraq, right from the very first day I met him and talked to him three years ago, is that we are involved in a long-term war against Islamic extremism, and that we have an obligation to help the Iraqis rebuild their country. And he was very consistent in all his conversations with me throughout the entire time I was there, and in my meetings with him afterwards, that he is not going to be swayed by political opinion, polls, and criticism he may get back here. So I think this will only confirm his resolution.

Bush has made allusions to the fact that the next president is going to have to keep it going, and so I suppose inevitably Iraq will be an issue in 2008.

Well, it could be, but who knows what kind of an issue it’s going to be? I think we’ll still be there with troops in 2008. I think there will still be violence, but it’s important to look back at how far the Iraqis have come in the last three years, and we don’t know how far along they’ll get in the next three, so let’s wait and see.

You’ve been in the war against terrorism now for more than twenty years, and do you get any sense that the war has peaked? In other words, was 2001 the peak and things have gotten better?

I’m going to give you an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand answer. On the one hand we certainly have had, including today, very important victories against the leadership of al Qaeda. We’ve taken out a lot of the top al-Qaeda people. [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld today described Zarqawi as the number three man in al Qaeda. In some ways operationally he was really the number one man in al Qaeda because we’ve chased [Osama] bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two guy, into a cave somewhere, and all they’re left doing is issuing videotapes from time to time just to show their followers they’re still around.

Some 3,000 other al-Qaeda operatives have been killed or captured around the world, so we’ve certainly hurt the organization. On the other hand, this is not a classic terrorist organization in the sense of the kinds I fought back in the 70’s and 80’s because it’s more of a distributive network rather than a mainframe, if you want to use a computer term. And so you’ve got a lot of these guys in various places, as we’ve seen: Indonesia, Spain, and just over the weekend, in Canada. And we can’t rest on our laurels. We should certainly press our advantage now, and I think we’re on the whole favored [to win], but we’re certainly not effectively, entirely safe. We’re going to have more attacks—there’s no question.

Including in the United States, probably.

Quite possibly.

It’s a rather grim future in a way. I mean this war doesn’t end easily.

Well, yes, but you know it’s no grimmer than the world around us in 1945.

On the eve of the Cold War?

We faced a new threat. We didn’t quite know what it was at that time, Soviet Communism. We could see it moving around in Greece and Turkey, we had to reorganize our federal bureaucracy with the National Security Act in 1947. We had to find allies; that took us until 1949. Meanwhile, we had the Communist take-over of China, we had the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, we had the Berlin airlift. It was a pretty dramatic, very discouraging time for America. Then we had the invasion of Korea in 1950. And administrations from both parties, across the American spectrum, basically saw the Cold War through. It took almost a half a century, but we won it. We can show the same kind of resilience, I think, now.

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