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The facts on the ground in Iraq have changed so much that it's easy to forget that it wasn't always so dire. When Bremer arrived, in May 2003, the deadly insurgency inside Iraq had yet to begin in earnest. But chaos was mounting, as internecine violence surged, citizens began settling scores and looters took everything that wasn't bolted down. Bremer had all of 10 days' notice that the Administration wanted him to take over as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and it showed. A former adviser recalls being stunned when at an early-morning meeting the new CPA chief asked the aide to show him on a map the location of Kurdistan which the U.S. had protected as part of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq for more than a decade.
Even so, Bremer quickly assumed an almost presidential air, appearing in public in jacket and tie despite the sweltering heat. Bremer did make impromptu visits to shops and restaurants efforts to show that some sense of normalcy was returning. But by late last summer, the violence against both coalition targets and Iraqis had begun, and Bremer has rarely been out of his security bubble since. A former top adviser who briefed Bremer every day says Bremer was in constant contact with his bosses at the Pentagon, talking daily with Washington officials like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "I was never in a meeting when I saw Bremer make a decision with senior aides. He'd come out of his phone calls, and he'd say, 'Here's what we're going to do.'" Bremer's ability to navigate the Administration's internal divisions made him an instant star. According to the former adviser, the White House was grooming Bremer to become Secretary of State in a second Bush term.
But just after Bremer took over, he issued a series of orders that had the effect of fueling the insurgency that has blackened his entire tenure. Over the course of just three days in mid-May, he ordered a deep purge of Baath Party members from their jobs in government ministries, schools and universities. He then followed with an order to disband completely the Iraqi military. The results were disastrous. "All of a sudden we had about 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists that had gone underground," says a top U.S. official in Baghdad at the time. "We had about 200,000 still armed soldiers that had gone underground. And we had no Iraqi face to tell the Iraqi people what was happening. Within a couple of weeks, the insurgency began to rise, and it kept rising through the summer and into the fall."
Senior officials at the coalition authority in Baghdad say they tried to talk Bremer out of these decisions. Recalls one: "We said, 'Let's get Rumsfeld on the phone to soften it up a little bit.' But Bremer said, 'No, I'm issuing this today.' It went absolutely too deep, and he was told that, but he wouldn't change." (Rumsfeld said in an interview with TIME late last year that he took responsibility for disbanding the army, meaning that Bremer was just carrying out orders.) A former senior official in the CPA confronted Bremer about the order to disband the army. "What the hell are you doing this for?" the official asked. "We don't need them," he recalls Bremer saying of Iraqi soldiers. A former top adviser says, "We had things running good on Wednesday, and by Saturday we had 400,000 new enemies. I don't know if you can lay all this at Bremer's feet, but you can lay enough of it there to make it count."