BAGHDAD — BAGHDAD -- When President Bush convened a meeting of his National Security Council on May 22, 2003, his special envoy in Iraq made a statement that caught many of the participants by surprise. In a video presentation from Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III informed the president and his aides that he was about to issue an order formally dissolving Iraq's army.
The decree was issued the next day.
The broad outlines of the decision are now widely known, defended by proponents as necessary to ensure that Saddam Hussein's influence did not outlive his ouster from power.
But with the fifth anniversary of the start of the war approaching, some participants have provided in interviews their first detailed, on-the-record accounts of a decision that is widely seen as one of the most momentous and contentious of the war, assailed by critics as all but ensuring that American forces would face a growing insurgency led by embittered Sunnis who led much of the army.
The account that emerges from those interviews, and from access to previously unpublished documents, makes clear that Bremer's decree reversed an earlier plan - one that would have relied on the Iraqi military to help secure and rebuild the country, and had been approved at a White House meeting that Bush convened just 10 weeks earlier.
The interviews show that while Bush endorsed Bremer's plan in the May 22 meeting, the decision was made without thorough consultations within government, and without the counsel of the secretary of state or the senior American commander in Iraq, said the commander, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan. The decree by Bremer, who is known as Jerry, prompted bitter infighting within the government, with recriminations continuing to this day.
Colin L. Powell, the secretary of state and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was never asked for advice, and was in Paris when the May 22 meeting was held.
Powell, who views the decree as a major blunder, later asked Condoleezza Rice, who was serving as Bush's national security adviser, for an explanation.
"I talked to Rice and said, 'Condi, what happened?'" he recalled. "And her reaction was 'I was surprised, too, but it is a decision that has been made and the president is standing behind Jerry's decision. Jerry is the guy on the ground.' And there was no further debate about it."
When Bush convened his top national security aides before the March 2003 invasion, he was presented with a clear American plan on what to do with the Iraqi armed forces. American commanders and Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who served as the first American administrator in Iraq, planned to use the Iraqi military to help protect the country and as a national reconstruction force.
Republican Guard units, the forces deemed most loyal to Hussein, were to be disarmed, detained and dismantled. But the rest of the army would be retained. Iraqi troops would be used as a reconstruction force to rebuild the nation.
The presentation also carried a caution about the risks of dismissing the army in the early months of an American occupation in a nation racked by high unemployment: "Cannot immediately demobilize 250K-300K personnel and put on the street."
Col. John Agoglia, who served as a war planner for Gen. Tommy Franks at the U.S. Central Command, said the idea of using the Iraqi army had long been an element of the invasion strategy.
Once the war got under way and many members of the Iraqi army began to desert their posts, a different vision on how to proceed began to emerge at the Defense Department.
After Bremer was chosen in early May 2003 as the civilian administrator in Iraq, he and his senior aide, Walter B. Slocombe, began to consult in Washington with senior Defense Department officials on how to build a new Iraq.
"Bremer's original idea was a professional, downsized military," Feith said. "It would not have an internal security mission or be a major factor in domestic politics. Bremer and his colleagues were thinking of how to create a military that would be suitable for a free and secure country.
Bremer said he did not recall who first proposed the decree dissolving the Iraqi army.