U.S. Hands Authority To Iraq Two Days Early
Fear of Attacks Hastens Move; Interim Leaders Assume Power
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, June 28 -- The United States transferred political authority to an interim Iraqi government in a five-minute surprise ceremony Monday morning, accelerating the planned handover by two days in an effort to avoid attacks by insurgents thought to be plotting to mar the event.
At the hastily arranged ceremony, held inside a high-security compound controlled by the American military, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer handed a signed document to the chief judge of Iraq's highest court announcing the dissolution of the U.S. occupation administration and the conveyance of political authority to the interim government.
The low-key handover marked the end of direct American control over Iraq's political affairs that began after the U.S. military toppled the government of President Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Bremer flew out of Baghdad on a military transport plane two hours after the ceremony. The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John D. Negroponte, arrived here Monday night and reestablished diplomatic ties that had been severed since Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Iraq's interim government, led by a prime minister who had been a CIA-supported opponent of Hussein, faces the challenge of running a country wracked by a violent insurgency, hobbled by economic stagnation and riven by religious and ethnic disputes. Although feared insurgent attacks did not occur after the handover was announced, there was little celebration by ordinary Iraqis, who remain deeply skeptical about the continuing U.S. role in their nation and the ability of the new government to address their problems.
Although Bremer's document stated that the interim government "will assume the complete sovereignty on behalf of the Iraqi people," it will still lack many of hallmarks of other sovereign nations. More than 130,000 U.S. troops will remain, with wide latitude to mount combat operations and detain Iraqis. A temporary constitution will restrict the interim government's power largely to the areas of basic civil administration and preparations for national elections scheduled for January. The country's oil revenue will be subject to international oversight. American personnel will continue to work out of Hussein's Republican Palace. And the government itself is supposed to be in power for only seven months, until national elections are held.
The interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, acknowledged that his government faced "a hard task, a complex task." He called for national unity and cooperation in combating insurgents, who he vowed will "end up in disgrace and failure."
"The transformation will not take place in weeks or days or months, but this transformation will take years," he said in a televised address after he took an oath of office, standing in front of a bank of red-white-and-black Iraqi flags.
Despite the sober tone of the day -- there were no parades or public celebrations -- Allawi and other members of the interim government hailed the handover of political authority as a milestone in Iraq's transformation from dictatorship to democracy.
"This is a historic, happy day, a day that all Iraqis have been looking forward to," the interim president, Ghazi Yawar, said. "It's a day we take our country back."
Bremer said he had "confidence that the Iraqi government is ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead."
"You are ready now for sovereignty, and we think it's an important part of our obligation as temporary custodian to return the sovereignty to you," Bremer told Allawi and Yawar before handing over the document.
The handover, which had been scheduled to occur on Wednesday, was accelerated after discussions between Bremer and Allawi over the weekend, a senior U.S. official said. Both men were concerned that insurgent attacks timed to coincide with the handover would distract from, and possibly disrupt, the ceremony.
As the day approached for the handover, insurgents had escalated a campaign of car bombings, kidnappings and other violence in an attempt to interfere with the transfer. Apparently coordinated attacks across the country last Thursday killed more than 100 people. Insurgents have also captured and threatened to behead a U.S. Marine and four foreign civilians over the past two days.
Bush administration officials are hoping that the transfer of political authority will sap support for the insurgency among ordinary Iraqis. "You may not see a change right away, but over time there will be a significant transformative effect on the security situation," a senior administration official said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company