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U.S. transfers Iraqi sovereignty ahead of schedule

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The United States officially ended its occupation of Iraq on Monday, handing sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government during a hastily arranged, five-minute ceremony that came two days ahead of schedule to foil any insurgent plans to mar the transfer of power with attacks.

It remained to be seen, however, how much power has shifted to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Nearly 160,000 U.S.-led coalition troops will remain in the country as the guarantors of security, and about 150 American, British and other Western advisers will remain scattered among the government's ministries.

Allawi's toughest task may be convincing his countrymen that he and his government, not the Americans, are in charge.

If he can do that, U.S. and Iraqi officials believe, more Iraqis will turn against the Saddam Hussein diehards, foreign terrorists and Islamic militants who're attacking foreigners and their Iraqi allies. Quelling the violence, they think, will bolster the new government's authority and give it a chance to begin solving Iraq's economic problems, which will bring Allawi even greater public support and pave the way for elections for a democratic government in January.

The insurgents, however, are expected to step up their attacks in an effort to assassinate Allawi and other members of his government, highlight his dependence on America, discredit the fledgling Iraqi security forces and fuel even greater public frustration with the lack of security.

Monday, though, was a victory for Allawi and the United States.

"This is what we all need," said Baghdad resident Mohammed Sadeq, 23, a laborer who'd stopped at a roadside melon stand. "Iraqis understand each other better than Americans."

Only about 30 people, including a reporter and photographer from Knight Ridder, were on hand to witness the transfer ceremony in Allawi's office, deep in the heavily fortified military base known as the Green Zone. Devoid of pageantry, the event wasn't broadcast live on television, and it was over before ordinary Iraqis became aware of it.

Most Iraqis learned that the transfer had taken place only when the new government was sworn in a few hours later in a televised ceremony at another Green Zone location. By that time, former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer was on a military transport plane out of the country. Incoming U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte arrived later in the day.

Allawi said the early transfer was his idea, and a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said part of the reason was to head off possible attacks. As of Sunday night, only six people in the occupation authority knew it would happen Monday morning, said a senior coalition official, who also asked not to be identified. Bremer notified his top staff and said goodbye at an emotional 8 a.m. meeting.

The streets of Baghdad were quiet in the hours after the handover, and no major violence was reported anywhere in the country, though five hostages, including a U.S. Marine, remained in the hands of extremists who have threatened to behead them.

In interviews, several Iraqis expressed subdued gratification, but there was little of the sort of celebratory outbursts that greeted Saddam's capture last December.

At a NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the news of the transfer.

"The Iraqi people have their country back," Bush said. Of militants bent on violence, he said: "Their brutal attacks have not prevented Iraqi sovereignty, and they will not prevent Iraqi democracy."

The brief ceremony marking the surrender of sovereignty was a fittingly low-key ending to a U.S.-led occupation that began with high hopes when American tanks rolled into the Iraqi capital in April 2003 but accomplished few of its goals, most acutely the establishment of law and order.

"I will leave Iraq confident in the future, confident that the Iraqi government is ready now to meet the challenges that lie before it," Bremer said, moments before handing a brief, blue-bound letter to Chief Justice Mahdi al Mahmood as the two men stood in front of yellow-upholstered couches. The letter brought about the hand-over and disbanded the Coalition Provisional Authority, as the civilian occupation agency had been known.

"We welcome Iraq's steps to take its rightful place of equality and honor among the free nations of the world," the letter said. Participating with Bremer, Allawi and al Mahmood were interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and British envoy David Richmond.

Shortly after the ceremony, Bremer flew by helicopter to Baghdad's main airport and departed, after 13 months in office.

"We would like to express our thanks to our friends in the coalition," Allawi said in brief remarks before the transfer. "We want to tell them that all the sacrifices will not go in vain. We are determined to continue. We are committed. There's no way to turn back."

Occupation officials said that despite the security setbacks, they'd laid the groundwork for Iraq to become an economically vibrant, pluralistic democracy. They pointed out that they established a new currency and banking system, passed laws to promote foreign investment, set up hundreds of local councils, and had begun renovating huge swaths of infrastructure.

Still, Allawi, a former agent of U.S. and British intelligence services who spent years in exile plotting unsuccessfully to overthrow Saddam, is inheriting a California-sized nation of 26 million people that's wracked by ethnic tension, short of basic services and under threat from a shadowy insurgent movement that seems to be improving its tactics.

Allawi vowed Monday to restore order, and hinted that he may impose martial law. But he's restricted by Iraq's temporary constitution, which includes civil rights guarantees. His caretaker government's long-term role is to steer the country toward free elections in January.

The power transfer means that Allawi and his 33-member Cabinet now control the government and its ministries, which employ more than a million people and reach into all levels of society. To support its authority, the interim regime will have to call on what by all accounts are undertrained, poorly equipped security forces. An American general remains in charge of training the new Iraqi army.

Indeed, the fact that nearly 160,000 multinational troops will remain in the country may make it difficult for average Iraqis to accept that the "occupation," in the practical as opposed to legal sense, has ended.

The troops will continue to conduct patrols and raids in search of insurgents, closing roads, stopping cars and breaking down doors when they deem it necessary, sometimes without consulting Iraqi authorities. Officials say they are still negotiating how U.S. forces will coordinate with the Iraqi government.

Yet to many in this proud country, the restoration of sovereignty is an important step.

"There is a big difference between yesterday and today," said Muwaffak al Rubaie, Allawi's national security adviser. "There is a difference between an occupied country with an occupying army ... and a free country with full sovereignty. Today, the Iraqis have become able to express their visions and views on how to reconstruct a unified democratic federal Iraq ...''

The United States will continue to play a dominant role in reconstruction, mainly because it controls the bulk of the available money, the $18.4 billion congressional appropriation that's now being billed as a gift from the United States to the people of Iraq.

The Pentagon-run Program Management Office, which is in charge of the money, has awarded contracts to oversee the work mainly to large U.S.-based firms.

Although an Iraqi flag was raised over the Green Zone on Monday, the United States had announced no plans to move out of Saddam's former Republican Palace there, and American troops were still guarding it. A new U.S. Embassy, the world's largest, is being built in the vicinity.

In a brief question and answer session with reporters after the ceremony, Bremer, who has come under heavy criticism in recent weeks as pundits have assessed the occupation's shortcomings, was asked whether the war and its aftermath was "worth it," for the Iraqi people and for him.

"There's no question the liberation of Iraq was a great and noble thing," he replied. "Anybody who has any doubts about whether Iraq's a better place today than it was 14 months ago, go down to see the mass graves of Hillah. Or visit Halabja, where Saddam gassed thousands of people. Or see any of the torture chambers or rape rooms around this country.

"And anybody who has seen those things, as I have, will know what I know, which is that Iraq is a much better place. It's absolutely been worth it. No doubt there will be challenges ahead. But I am delighted to have been able to play a role here in the stabilization part of Operation Iraqi Freedom."

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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040628 USIRAQ priorities

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