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Quiet handover, secret ceremony

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 2004


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.

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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."