BAGHDAD — When Baghdad fell, US officials and their Iraqi allies expected an eventual return of Iraqi sovereignty to be a jubilant occasion much like the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdos Squarelast April.
But a year later, Iraqi sovereignty was quietly handed over by US Ambassador Paul Bremer in a secret ceremony far from the view of the Iraqi people. The handover, two days ahead of schedule, was his last official act inside Iraq.
"I will leave Iraq confident in its future and confident in the ability of the government to meet the challenges of the future," Mr. Bremer said during the ceremony, attended by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, President Ghazi Yawar, and other Iraqi officials. Bremer flew out of the country about four hours later.
The circumstances of the improvised handover, held at about 10:30 a.m. Monday, showed the deep influence Iraq's complex insurgency - involving foreign Islamist fighters, loyalists of Mr. Hussein's ousted secular dictatorship, and Iraqi nationalists - now extends over domestic affairs. Terrorism, almost unheard of here under Hussein, has become a fact of life.
Officials said the surprise move was designed to outflank insurgents who had threatened terrorist attacks to disrupt the handover, and to avoid the complex security arrangements that a public ceremony would have warranted. But it also showed an Iraq too dangerous for top US and Iraqi officials to publicly mark the most significant date since the fall of Baghdad.
Spiraling violence last fall caused Bremer and the Bush administration to replace a plan that would have left Iraq under US control with the current model - a US-appointed interim government - until elections . As recently as Friday, at a background briefing on the handover logistics, Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) officials said they couldn't provide details on where, or when, the ceremony would happen, reflecting security concerns.
Now Iraqis are waiting to see if this response will yield dividends, though no one expects quick results. Over the weekend, separate insurgent groups said they were holding at least five new foreign hostages - three Turks, a Pakistani, and a US marine - and threatened to murder them. Two US soldiers and one British soldier were killed over the weekend; a US civilian was killed Monday when a military transport plane took ground fire shortly after take-off; and a dozen Iraqis died in violent incidents across the capital.
Iraqi officials described the surprise ceremony as simply a reflection of the fact that they're ready to take control, and that it came at their request. Late last week, the US had handed over control of the last 11 ministries under US supervision.
Iraqi officials say taking power a little sooner will make it easier to restore stability.
"I believe that we will challenge these terrorists, criminals, Saddamists, and antidemocratic forces by bringing [the] date of the handover forward,'' Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zubari told reporters in Istanbul, where he's attending the NATO summit. President Yawar said at the ceremony: "This is a historic day, a happy day, a day that all Iraqis have been looking forward to."
Word of the transfer trickled out to Iraqis throughout the day, who seemed to greet the news with equal measures of skepticism and hope. Most say they'll judge the interim government on its ability to provide the security and stability that the CPA didn't.
"We're in the middle of a cultural and moral revolution," says schoolteacher Munir al-Khafaji, sitting in a cafe in Baghdad's largely Shiite Karrada neighborhood. He spent three years in Abu Ghraib prison for dissident activity under Hussein. "American soldiers can't tell friends from enemies here. We can. So I'm hoping we're going to be safer. But a lot of domestic political circumstances need to be settled - real change will come after elections."
The US-brokered Transitional Administrative Law, an interim constitution that sets the limits on Mr. Allawi's power, calls for parliamentary elections by January.
The muted response to the sovereignty handover was a stunning contrast to the fall of Baghdad.
Mr. Khafaji's circle of friends, most in ankle-length dishdasha shirts, said their principal criticism of the US occupation was that the US hasn't been brutal enough with insurgents and criminals. They predicted that Allawi will get tough. "These murders are supposed to have their throats slit and be thrown into the river,'' says Kassem Fadel Hassan, the cafe owner. "Hopefully, we'll start to see that."
That's a popular sentiment inside a country increasingly frustrated that Hussein, a deeply reviled figure here, has been removed - but replaced by a power vacuum in which more Iraqis now fear for the safety of their families.
Allawi has pledged to take a hard line against insurgents, and his aides say they'll bring in old Iraqi intelligence and military officials who they expect will be more effective at unraveling insurgent networks than the US military.
"I'm just tired of being afraid for my family,'' says Mohsen Hamid, who runs a store that sells shwarma - greasy roast chicken and lamb - on a bustling street.
Iraqi officials are also hoping to broaden the scope of international security assistance. At the NATO summit, Foreign Minister Zubari received a commitment of security training for new Iraqi forces and military aid, including weapons systems and sophisticated communications.
While most dividends of the handover will be slow in coming, it immediately increases the ability of Iraq to appeal for help to many of the European nations that opposed the US invasion last spring, and also clears the way for increased United Nations involvement.
"I think the bitter differences of the war are over,'' President George Bush said at a press conference on Saturday with Irish President Bertie Ahern and outgoing EU President Romano Prodi. "There is a common interest and a common goal to work together to help the Iraqi people realize the benefits of a free society."
At Monday morning's handover ceremony, Mr. Bremer handed a letter from President Bush to President Yawar requesting the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time since late 1990, when Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Building domestic security can't happen quickly enough. While insurgent activity has increased it has come to focus on Iraqi civilians and security elements working with the transitional government, and in recent months the rate of US casualties has been falling while Iraqi casualties have been rising. Many Iraqis and US officials believe that many of the insurgents are from outside the country, and are hoping that the flow of fighters into Iraq will be cut off.
Allawi's aides say he will be able to address that. A Shiite with a secular outlook on politics, Allawi was a senior member of Hussein's Baath Party until they had a falling out in 1975, leaving him in exile in England. Over the years, he built a network of disaffected Baathists and senior military officers both inside and out of Iraq, and his political party, the Iraqi National Accord, is filled with former members of Hussein's feared security services.
He's hoping that those ties, and the fact that average members of the vanquished party don't suffer reprisals from his government, will yield to more intelligence and domestic-security cooperation. In particular, he has said he intends to focus on capturing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with Al Qaeda ties who US officials say has become a key figure in a movement to establish a Sunni theocracy inside Iraq. Mr. Zarqawi, through militant Islamist websites, has claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks on civilians and foreigners that have left hundreds dead.
Wire reports were used in this article.