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An inside look at the first few hours of the new Iraqi government

BAGHDAD, Iraq _Within five hours of returning sovereignty to a new interim Iraq regime, the only Americans left in the marble-floored nerve center of Iraq's new government on Monday were the private security guards standing outside Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office—and one U.S. reporter.

The rest had gone, bidding their Iraqi counterparts goodbye and good luck in the building whose hallways until now had been crowded with American advisers to the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council.

In one way, the sudden handover of power, two days ahead of schedule, was symbolic—the Iraqis were called on to react to the American timetable. Few, if any, had been warned of what was about to happen, and the building, once a guesthouse at Saddam Hussein's palace, had an air of chaos as aides scrambled to make deadlines they found out about only when they woke that morning.

But by the end of the day, it was clear that whatever the coming days would show in the rest of Iraq, that Iraqis were in charge of the government center.

President Ghazi al-Yawer, in his trademark flowing robes and Arab headdress, strode through the building with a regal air unseen in 15 months of American occupation.

Greetings went from American-style handshakes to Arab-style kisses on the cheek. Traditional lamb was brought in on platters. Sweet tea flowed.

People began smoking in the building.

This, then, is an inside look at the first few hours of the new Iraqi government.

_10:30 a.m. More than a year of foreign occupation ended in five minutes, as L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator for Iraq, renounced control of the country in a surprise ceremony inside the government center.

A few foreign journalists were herded into a room for what they were told would be a "background briefing" by Bremer. An audience of no more than 30 people sat stunned as the moment Iraqis had been waiting for occurred in virtual seclusion and before most in the country had turned on their televisions.

_11:30 a.m. Al-Yawer met with Knight Ridder in his first interview as the president of a sovereign Iraq. In a sparsely furnished office with only a vase of fresh roses as decoration, the president described the handover as "smooth" and promised tough measures for insurgents who dare to continue attacks.

Down the hall, the prime minister's press aides shouted orders over a symphony of ringing cell phones. A man wearing a headset monitored breaking news, as another worker rushed to book hotel rooms when it was determined that no one from Allawi's staff would be allowed to leave the heavily fortified Green Zone, the village-sized safe area in Baghdad where the U.S.-led coalition made its headquarters. Unaware of what the day would hold when they left their homes, none had brought overnight bags.

_Noon. The already harried staff went into overdrive as reports trickled in of the possible arrest of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who is Enemy No. 1 for Allawi's government. Initial accounts said that al-Zarqawi, who has called for Allawi's assassination and claimed responsibility for many large-scale bombings in Iraq, was in custody after a battle in the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad.

Allawi's aides made frantic calls to U.S. military officials and ordered staff members to keep the news under wraps until it could be confirmed. The excitement over what would have been the crowning moment of the new government's first day was clouded by suspicions among some aides that the news was too good to be true.

_1 p.m. A telephone call interrupted a meeting to announce that Bremer had left Iraq on a U.S. military plane. A huddle of government workers working on a speech stared at one another incredulously until one young aide finally spoke up:

"You mean that's it?" Azhar Ali asked. "He's not coming back?"

_1:30 p.m. The rush continued to track down the source of the al-Zarqawi arrest reports. George Sada, a top aide to Allawi, sprinted down the hall to his boss' office with every new detail.

Frustrated that the news still couldn't be confirmed, Sada picked up his cell phone and called Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the spokesman for U.S. military operations in Iraq.

"Sir, Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President are here and they're asking about Zarqawi," Sada said before disappearing into a corridor for privacy.

He emerged with no confirmation.

The staff was growing antsy. They were hungry and anxious for the al-Zarqawi confirmation. Plus, they were still looking for hotel rooms inside the Green Zone and had to finish a statement for the media.

There was no choice but to cancel a news conference Allawi had planned for 2 p.m., they decided.

_2 p.m. Two Iraqi men in construction clothes ambled down the hallway of the government center carrying blueprints and marble tile samples.

They looked confused and out of place in the swirl of suits and dresses crowding the foyer outside Allawi's office. Finally, an aide asked them what they wanted. The men placed two marble tiles, one in cream and the other a rosy pink, on a guard's table.

"Which one does the prime minister want for his bathroom?" one of the workers asked.

_2:15 p.m.

Arabic-language satellite TV channels were reporting that U.S. officials had confirmed al-Zarqawi's arrest. Sada was visibly upset by the possibility that the U.S. military had leaked the news to the press before alerting the prime minister's office.

Again, he dialed Kimmitt.

"Sir, some agencies are saying you confirmed Zarqawi's capture. Is that true?" an unusually restrained Sada asked into his cell phone. "OK, it's false?"

Sada hung up and launched into a tirade about "the problems reporters cause."

Lunch for Iraqi staffers arrived in the form of foil-wrapped plates of lamb and chicken on piles of raisin-dotted rice. In a side room, American security forces tucked into platters of onion rings and gulped Pepsi.

Allawi's ravenous aides stuffed pieces of lamb into rolls and scurried off to prepare for the televised swearing-in of the new government, which was scheduled to begin within an hour.

"Hey, do we even have an auditorium for that?" yelled one aide between bites as he ran out the door.

_2:45 p.m. With glum faces, Iraqi government workers received final word that the al-Zarqawi arrest report was false. A rumor had "gotten out of hand," they were told. They had no time to ponder the disappointing news. A cadre of ministers and international journalists was waiting in front of an empty stage draped with Iraqi flags.

The good news was that hotel rooms were finally booked for the weary staff.

_3 p.m. Wearing smiles, the prime minister and president took the stage to the cheers of an invitation-only audience. With live television coverage, millions of Iraqis watching at home heard for the first time that the U.S.-led occupation was over.

———

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

Iraq

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