American military commanders did not impose curfews, halt looting or order Iraqis back to work after former president Saddam Hussein's regime fell because US policymakers were reluctant to declare US troops an occupying force, says an internal army review examined by The Associated Press.
As a result, the Bush administration's first steps at reconstruction in Iraq were severely hampered, creating a power vacuum that others quickly moved to fill, and a growing mistrust on the part of ordinary Iraqis, the report said.
The review, a postwar self-evaluation by the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), said the political decision to call the US forces that arrived in Baghdad "liberators" instead of "occupying forces" left the division's officers uncertain about their legal authority in postwar Baghdad and other cities. Under international law, the report says, the troops were indeed an occupation force and had both rights and responsibilities.
"Because of the refusal to acknowledge occupier status, commanders did not initially take measures available to occupying powers, such as imposing curfews, directing civilians to return to work, and controlling the local governments and populace. The failure to act after we displaced the regime created a power vacuum, which others immediately tried to fill," the report says.
The report, marked "For Official Use Only," was obtained by AP, the Washington security think tank Globalsecurity.org and other outlets. A spokesman for the 3rd Infantry Division, Major Darryl Wright, characterized it as a candid effort to find ways to improve the division the next time it is called to fight.
Wright said the final version was not complete. It reflects multiple, sometimes disparate, points of view from officers and troops who took part in the fighting, he said.
In many ways, it mirrors recent criticisms by Jay Garner, the retired American general who briefly headed the first occupation government in Iraq. Garner said in a BBC interview aired Wednesday that the military did not act quickly enough to restore law and order and key services in Baghdad, and should have tried harder to win support from the Iraqi people.
Between 12,000 and 15,000 3rd Infantry Division troops fought in Iraq, and 44 were killed in action, Wright said. The division, along with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, comprised the bulk of the ground advance north from Kuwait to Baghdad during late March and early April.
In the section regarding legal matters facing the division, the report said unidentified "higher officials" constrained the occupation effort and did not prepare for the fall of Saddam's government.
"Despite the virtual certainty that the military would accomplish the regime change, there was no plan for oversight and reconstruction, even after the division arrived in Baghdad," the report says. "State, Defense, and other relevant agencies must do a better and timelier job planning occupation governance and standing up a new Iraqi government."
The division confiscated US$1 billion from palaces in Baghdad, but was not permitted to use that money to help the city on its feet, despite having the legal authority to do so, the report says.
The hunt for evidence of Saddam's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear programs -- the Bush administration's key reason for going to war -- also was problematic from the start, the report says.