‘Major combat’ declaration was a ploy, author says

By David Gaddis Smith
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
March 24, 2006

President Bush’s declaration that major combat operations were over in Iraq was made nearly three years ago in part to get foreign countries to send troops to Iraq, according to the author of a new book on the conflict.

“What the Bush administration was trying to do was entice in foreign forces,” said Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent of The New York Times and co-author of “Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.”

“Nobody wanted to send forces if there was a shooting war,” Gordon told about 150 people gathered at the Point Loma Library on Wednesday night for a writers series sponsored by the City Club of San Diego.

The U.S. military was trying to get an Indian division, a NATO division and an Arab division sent to Iraq to help U.S. forces. “And so General (Tommy) Franks’ strategy, which the White House also embraced, was, ‘Tell them the war’s over,’ ” Gordon said.

President Bush wound up telling sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego on May 1, 2003, “Major combat operations have ended.” In the background was a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”

“This was meant to be kind of a signal to the international community that ‘It’s OK, come on in,’ but the problem was, it was premature,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t OK, and they didn’t come in.”

Gordon was embedded with U.S. troops at the time. Asked by an audience member how those troops had reacted to the “Mission Accomplished” idea, Gordon replied, “Some of the troops were very confused.”

He said although U.S. troops had overwhelmed Iraq’s military and taken the capital, some were essentially being told, “Great job in Baghdad, but you have to go to Fallujah.”

Gordon, who wrote the book with retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, said U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was abysmal during the lead-up to the war and was off base during the Clinton administration, too.

The CIA “didn’t have a single spy with access to WMD,” he said. “It extrapolated from what it could see with technical intelligence, (with) what it could hear, and it would misinterpret things,” he said.

Gordon said that when weapons inspectors were coming, Saddam Hussein would tell his commanders something like, “Hey, clean up the joint. . . . There might be some old stuff lying around.”

“So they’re all scurrying around cleaning up these sites the same way as if the neighbors were coming over for dinner,” Gordon said.

U.S. intelligence intercepted the activity but misinterpreted it as meaning Hussein was hiding an ongoing major weapons program, Gordon said.