BAGHDAD, Iraq—If Iraq had turned out to be the peaceful nation longing for democracy that the U.S.-led coalition envisioned when it took over the country, the return of sovereignty to Iraqis this week would probably involve a huge gala headed by a triumphant President Bush.
Instead, occupation authorities are working with the incoming Iraqi government on top-secret plans for a series of subdued ceremonies closed to the public, with severe media restrictions and an arsenal of weapons close at hand.
A surprise visit from Bush, who will be in neighboring Turkey just ahead of the June 30 handover date, would do little but complicate security logistics and further link the president to the failure of his forces to provide stability 15 months after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
"You're not going to see a big western presence. We're not going to be out there thumping this," said a senior U.S. military official involved in the planning. "There will be no western ceremonies, parades or mutual flag-raisings. It's their day."
What should be a happy occasion is a security nightmare, as terrorists issue assassination threats and the U.S. military prepares for the large-scale car bombings and other violence they expect will disrupt festivities.
On Saturday, three Turkish citizens were kidnapped, allegedly on the orders of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and will be beheaded within 72 hours if Turkish companies do not withdraw from Iraq, a videotape of the hostages warned.
L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator for Iraq, will leave the country immediately after ceding authority. Administrators made a strategic decision to delay the arrival of John D. Negroponte, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, until after the handover to avoid the appearance that he is simply Bremer's replacement.
"It's intentional that Ambassador Bremer will leave on the 1st of July because he is the Coalition Provisional Authority," the senior military official said. He added that he likewise couldn't wait to leave for "somewhere on Cape Cod to drink margaritas with little umbrellas in them."
Iraq's Prime Minister-designate Iyad Allawi, the most powerful figure in Iraq's new government, reportedly won't leave the green zone, the heavily fortified area in Baghdad that houses coalition headquarters, until after the handover date. Last week, Zarqawi, who claims responsibility for the largest recent attacks in Iraq, called for Allawi's head in a recorded death threat that aired across the world.
"Iyad Allawi is not traveling at all these days," said a senior Iraqi official who works closely with the prime minister's office. "He's under maximum security."
Ordinary Iraqis can watch the ceremonies live on television, provided electricity is working in their power-starved neighborhoods. But there are still no details on where or when the events will take place. Iraqis inside the new leadership, meanwhile, are bracing for attacks and more criticism that they are simply a proxy government for their former occupiers.
"It'll be nice," one incoming Iraqi official said sarcastically when asked to describe the ceremonies. "Our new ministers will take an oath that'll go, `I swear by almighty God to be faithful to the United States and its Republican administration."
While the civilian occupation will dissolve, the U.S. military remains firmly in place. The patrols, checkpoints and tanks that have become part of Iraq's postwar landscape aren't going anywhere.
However, the coalition, now called the multinational forces, is trying to bolster Iraq's ill-trained and poorly equipped security personnel. This week alone, American-led forces delivered more than 57,000 bulletproof vests to their Iraqi counterparts in hopes of protecting them from expected attacks, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for U.S. military operations in Iraq.
Still, Iraqis in uniform won't be seen outside most government buildings for a long time. On Saturday, U.S. soldiers had to intervene when new Iraqi police mistakenly detained a driver for Knight Ridder on suspicion that he was a car bomber. Soldiers loaded their weapons and headed outside the gates of the Baghdad Convention Center to settle the problem before it drew further crowds to an area where several bombs have been disabled in recent months.
Iraqi policemen flashed their badges and kowtowed to the Americans' request that the driver be released after a quick search of his car. As they walked back inside the green zone, one soldier remarked to another: "We're still here because, God bless them, they're just not very good yet."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.