Bremer defends role in Iraq to House panel

February 07, 2007|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- As the powerful chief of the occupation government in Iraq four years ago, L. Paul Bremer III cut a dashing figure in his combat boots and elegant suits. He wore a confident smile, and his aggressive efforts to build a new order in Iraq had wide support in Washington.

Yesterday, Bremer sat before a committee on Capitol Hill, wearing black loafers and a somber expression as he tried to defend his reputation before an unhappy Democratic majority.

The veteran diplomat -- now a symbol of the changing fortunes of the administration's war -- was summoned as the first witness before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as it launched an effort to provide a new aggressive oversight of the White House's Iraq policy.

After Bremer ended his 13-month tour in June 2004 with the handover of sovereignty to a new Iraqi government, many observers came to believe that the Coalition Provisional Authority, under his leadership, was responsible for decisions that had proved devastating to the war effort.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the committee's chairman, wanted to know how the CPA could have shipped $12 billion in Iraqi oil money from New York to Baghdad and hand it over to Iraqi ministries with only the sketchiest accounting controls. The cash, all 363 tons of it, was shrink-wrapped into $400,000 bricks and carried on C-130 cargo planes.

"Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?" Waxman asked.

Sitting next to Bremer at the witness table was Stuart Bowen, the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who reported two years ago that the administration, despite its own guidelines, had failed to require sufficient "transparency" from the Iraqi ministries concerning their plans for the money. The CPA, according to Bowen's report, ended up with "virtually no documentation" for the spending.

Bremer acknowledged that tighter controls would have been preferable, but insisted that the first priority was to flush enough cash through the ministries -- for government salaries, pensions and small reconstruction projects -- to revive the Iraqi economy.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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