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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with The Washington Post

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
May 08, 2003

(Interview with David Ignatius, The Washington Post.)

Q: Where were you when the statue came down on April 12? How did you feel?

Wolfowitz: I did watch it [on the TV in my Pentagon office]. It was a wonderful sight. I was not surprised at all by it. Symbolically, it was not unlike seeing the Berlin Wall come down. It’s one of those images that will stand. I was very conscious at the time that the country was still far from liberated. There were still thousands of regime thugs. I felt at the time that there was still a lot of work to be done. Even at the end of the regime, there is still a lot of work to do, and I think that’s still the case. So it felt good, but it was tempered by a sense of how much work remains to be done.

As soon as it became clear what was happening in Basra -– that the regime and population had learned bad lessons of 1991, [I understood]. I had a very strong forecasting of that when I went to Dearborn [Michigan, for the Iraqi-American town hall meeting before the war]. A third of the Iraqis there were survivors of 1991.

[On the Ba'ath]: We obviously made a big mistake with this character at the health ministry. In fact the situation at the university is being corrected today. I think there are people in our government who underestimate the danger posed by Ba'athists, and the pervasive fear their presence induces. There is a tension between efficiency and real security. [Efficiency should not be allowed to override.]

[De-Ba'athicization]: One way of thinking about it is to think of the Rumanian experience. That was the worst in terms of penetration. There was an estimate that 20 to 25 percent of the population had been working for the secret police. Most weren’t doing it because they wanted to. Another way [to have a feel for collaboration] is from refugees who fled the country because they refused to join the party. You can’t say that someone who gave in is automatically anathema. In Iraq, there were about a million ordinary members and 30,000 special or full party members. That’s probably the population of the secret services. That’s still a lot of people. Those people need to be dealt with pretty severely, so that people are sure they’re out of action. If a guy who was going to be rector of the university had to be Ba'ath, he may not be evil, but the opening presumption [when you appoint a new rector] should be that you start with a fresh face.

It’s important to let the general population know this old regime is going to be eliminated, root and branch.

Q: Where is Saddam?

Wolfowitz: I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Wolfowitz: We need to shed some of our old "friends." During the regime period, there was a tendency to look for help anywhere we could get it. The number of 55 "most wanted" people was limited to encourage No. 56 and 57 to help out.

Q: What was the biggest surprise of the war?

Wolfowitz: The fact that WMD wasn’t used. It was a very pleasant surprise. We did a lot to prevent it, starting the war in a way and on a timetable they weren’t expecting and pressing it with the speed that made it hard for them to react and to regroup. We had a lot of intelligence that there was a red line around Al Kut. We got there so quickly. Also, I think all the warnings we gave helped. We know from one prisoner in the southern oil fields that what kept him from blowing up his oil well [was fear he would be held accountable]. It was our leaflet, and he discovered that we [U.S. Special Forces] were already there.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake the U.S. can make in post-war?

Wolfowitz: The biggest mistake is to underestimate the resilience of the old regime and people’s fear that the Ba'athists will outlast us. One of our big concerns is Iranian intervention. If people think the Americans aren’t here to stay, the natural thing will be to say, "Let’s get as much help from Iran – or wherever we think it’s coming from – while we can." We want to convey that we’ll be there, for emergency use, for a long time.

Q: My sense in Baghdad was that we need to internationalize the presence. The U.S. is too easy and vulnerable a target.

Wolfowitz: Internationalization is right. It shouldn’t be U.N. It should be as many other countries as you can bring in, especially central Europeans. I think it’s possible to withdraw relatively rapidly from Iraqi political life and day to day decisions--but to remain there as the essential security force. It’s not an easy line to draw. If you could get a police force that’s Iraqi that responds to a government that’s Iraqi -- [with the coalition just over horizon, as an emergency force of last resort].

Q: What’s the status of Chalabi? Why does he have a CentCom liaison, if he’s just one Iraqi leader among many?

Wolfowitz: We ought to be supporting everyone who can do something useful. I think the decision has been made to support democracy and a big tent. [We shouldn’t exclude him from the big tent.] We need more transparency in terms of others who we deal with.

Q: Were we deceived by Republican Guard commanders? Why didn’t they flip?

Wolfowitz: Rumsfeld always said that you need to be wary of people who say they’ll flip for you because they’re probably playing, at a minimum, both sides and saying similar things to Saddam. Rumsfeld was always skeptical of those claims and it was justified.

Q: Why did the Shia piece go so wrong, with Al Khoie murdered in Najjaf? Was it an intelligence screw-up?

Wolfowitz: I had an interesting meeting recently with a group of American Shia that included the North American representative of Sistani. A successful approach to the Shia will need to include a commitment to establish secure conditions in Najjaf where people can reopen traditional theological schools without having to worry about getting killed. In a way it would be a continuation of the successful management of the pilgrimage to Karbala [, which] was one of the best things we did. [because of non-intrusiveness of the U.S.]

Q: What message should Syria and Iran take?

Wolfowitz: Keep your sticky fingers off. That’s the first requirement. They shouldn’t be making trouble in Iraq.

Q: What are you reading these days?

Wolfowitz: I just started Bob Baer’s "See no Evil." It’s pretty shocking, if what he says is true.

Also, "The Iraqi Marshlands" –- edited by Emma Nicholson and Peter Clark [about Saddam’s brutal attempt to destroy the unique, historically significant and remarkable culture of Marshland Arabs in southern Iraq].