When the ceremonies were over, when the U.S. civil administrator had flown away, and the new Iraqi ministers had sworn on a red Koran to protect "the skies and the water" of Iraq, the new prime minister and president looked at each other on stage. And shrugged.

They then motioned to one another and ambled off stage. The day had started in great secrecy. A small group of reporters was summoned to the U.S.-controlled Green Zone with 30 minutes notice and the ruse of a background briefing by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The reporters scrambled to get through the barbed-wire checkpoints and three searches, only to be told to wait. They were ordered to surrender their cell phones and radios and at 10:20 a.m. were ushered into a room to cover what was being called "a ceremony."

It turned out to be the ceremony, in which the United States handed over political authority to Iraq. Bremer and Ayad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, were already seated with a half-dozen other officials. The room was relatively plain: pale green walls, gold-upholstered chairs and couches, a few floral bouquets set about. A small Iraqi flag was displayed on the table between the two principals. The men looked relaxed and comfortable, associates waiting for the start of a business meeting, although both are marked for assassination, having spent much time together in the refuge of the heavily guarded Green Zone, where the government is headquartered.

Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, dressed in ceremonial brown robes and a headdress, spoke briefly. He lauded the "historic, happy day, a day that all Iraqis have been looking forward to."

Allawi, a contrast to Yawar in a blue business suit and white shirt, also said it was a historic day. Then he asked Bremer to hand over the official documents. He was a beat premature. Bremer wanted to talk first. Bremer pronounced his "confidence that the Iraqi government is ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead." They stood. Bremer handed over papers signifying the return of Iraqi governance. It was done by 10:26 a.m.

Bremer and Allawi took two questions each, and the American official spoke about the "great and noble" liberation of Iraq. Seventeen minutes after arriving, the reporters were shuffled out.

Bremer's staff next picked a pool of cameramen, who, it turned out, would photograph him leaving the country. Without a public ceremony, Bremer was escorted to the airport by Barham Salih, the Iraqi deputy prime minister. With a little wave at the door of the plane, Bremer pointed his finger at Salih, and the door closed.

Bremer's departure did not signal the start of celebrations or a proclamation of what this new government will do. Its first official acts took place shrouded from public view by concrete and barbed wire.

By now, more reporters had converged on the Green Zone -- soon to be renamed the International Zone, though its function will still be as a bustling governmental enclave, for foreign diplomats and the new Iraqi administration. Once again, a gaggle of journalists was chosen to witness another secretive event.

This was the swearing-in of the Iraqi cabinet, whose members gathered on the stage of a building that used to be headquarters of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization. The audience comprised the journalists, about 100 Iraqi dignitaries and officials of nearby embassies. Yawar harkened back to the image of Iraq as the cradle of civilization. Allawi spoke at length of the need for unity and security in Iraq. His speech went uninterrupted by applause.

When it was over, the participants walked away. The dignitaries in attendance realized it was over and rose to congratulate each other. Reporters were once again led out, this time to meet the Iraqi replacements for the U.S. public relations experts who used to herd them. An aide to Yawar sought out a reporter, brandishing a copy of a story that just landed on the Internet. The president's name was not mentioned high enough, the aide complained.

Hamid Kifaey, the new government spokesman, fielded questions with aplomb. He waved away questions about why the act took place in secret and behind closed doors.

"Our Iraqi state was hijacked by Saddam Hussein for 35 years. Today marks the return of our dignity," said Kifaey, cool in a tailored suit and with ready-made answers. "Celebrations will take place. The Iraqi people are happy they have a government to defend against terrorism. If we defeat terrorism, it doesn't matter if we miss a party here or there."