L. Paul Bremer, who oversaw Iraq shortly after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, told a Modesto audience Wednesday night that the invasion has been well worth the effort.
Bremer, speaking at the annual meeting of the Almond Board of California, said Saddam had brutalized his people, wrecked the Iraqi economy and supported terrorists who threatened the United States.
He said Iraq is recovering following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, despite continuing violence and harsh conditions.
"The conventional wisdom that you read in the press, that the occupation was somehow bungled, is wrong," Bremer told several hundred people at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
The Almond Board, based in Modesto, continues its meeting today. It mostly has been a chance to celebrate the booming demand for the nuts, the second-highest-grossing farm product in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, and to talk about the bee supply and other concerns.
The event in recent years also has had speakers, such as Bremer, who have little to do with almonds but can give motivational talks to people in the industry.
Bremer had 23 years of State Department service behind him when President Bush named him administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. From May 2003 to June 2004, he oversaw efforts to build a democratic system amid the wreckage of Saddam's rule, which Bremer said left at least 500,000 people dead and about 1.5 million missing. He told of finding 300-plus mass graves around the country, and of torture and rape rooms in police stations.
"Saddam Hussein modeled his actions on Adolf Hitler and was in power three times as long as Hitler," he said, "so you can imagine the impact on the Iraqi psyche."
Over the past four years, Bremer said, Iraqis have voted in elections, greatly reduced their jobless and inflation rates, and started to rebuild social services and public works that Sad-dam had left in disarray.
Bremer acknowledged problems with the occupation, including having too few U.S. troops on the ground and too much confidence that Iraqis could take control of their country quickly. But, he said, the Bush administration is right in portraying the war as part of the battle against Islamic extremists, some of them members of al-Qaida in Iraq.
"They have a warped vision of Islam being inevitably at war with the West," said Bremer, who headed a commission that warned President Clinton about the terrorist threat in 2000.
Bremer also acknowledged growing opposition in the United States and Europe to the Iraq war, which has killed 3,879 Americans as of Saturday, 21 from the Northern San Joaquin Valley and nearby Sierra Ne-vada counties.
"There are times when leadership means taking your nation into war even if it is not popular," he said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.