- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

BAGHDAD — The United States ended its 15-month occupation of Iraq yesterday morning, two days earlier than expected, with a stealth ceremony inside the heavily fortified green zone that was over before it was even announced.

Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer handed the sheaf of legal documents transferring power to Iraqi Chief Justice Midhat al-Mahmood in an ornate office once used by Iraq’s Governing Council, as new President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi looked on.

“This is a day all Iraqis have been looking forward to,” Mr. al-Yawer said, “a day we are going to take our country back into the international forum.”

Mr. Bremer told the Iraqi officials, “You have said and we have agreed that you are ready for sovereignty.”

President Bush, meeting with fellow NATO leaders in Turkey, hailed the transfer of power as a milestone, but U.S. officials acknowledged that the ceremony was bumped up from June 30 and held in hastily arranged secrecy because of fears that terrorists would try to disrupt the proceedings.

The early transfer “had a subsidiary benefit, we thought, of perhaps somehow confusing the plans, or what we believe are plans, to disrupt the proceedings by the anti-coalition militants,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told National Public Radio.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also hailed the sovereignty transfer, welcoming Iraq “back into the family of independent and sovereign nations” and calling on Iraqis to support the new government.

The government faces monumental challenges, from confronting violent insurrectionists to reviving the economy, while preparing for national elections for a permanent government by the end of January.

Mr. Bremer boarded a helicopter to Baghdad International Airport almost immediately after the ceremony and left the country. In his 14-month tenure, the diplomat had overseen all aspects of Iraq’s troubled transition, often while refereeing sharp disagreements within the Bush administration on Iraq’s future.

A State Department spokesman said Mr. Bremer had returned home for “a well-earned rest and vacation.”

New U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John D. Negroponte arrived in Baghdad last night, formally initiating diplomatic relations that have been cut since shortly before the 1991 Gulf war.

As the morning transfer meeting was taking place, NATO leaders were meeting in Turkey to discuss training Iraq’s fledgling army.

Iraq’s new government repeatedly has asked foreign governments to contribute troops and training to help build up the civilian police, army and border patrols to stabilize a country shaken by daily violence.

The carnage continued yesterday, when a British soldier was killed and two more were wounded in a bomb attack in Basra. Two Iraqi civilians also were reported killed in a separate bomb attack targeting a U.S. military convoy near the city of Baquba.

Moments after Mr. Allawi placed his hand on a red Koran and was sworn in as the first prime minister of Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein era, he called on the Iraqi people “to be one hand to crush the foreign terrorists,” who had created a security nightmare.

He also promised prosperity for the Iraqi people and good relations with neighboring states.

Yesterday’s brief, private ceremonies were broadcast later across the Arab world. For many Iraqis, the day was one of muted pleasure that the U.S.-led occupation was one step closer to ending.

“When will the U.S. soldiers leave? Not today,” shrugged Wissam Mahdi, a grocer on busy Karada Street. He said he welcomed the new government as a substitute for foreign occupation, but added that he did not think the security situation would improve soon.

Others said they were happy to see a post-Saddam government in place and hoped for a peaceful and prosperous nation.

“A country is like this small boy,” said Noorya Mohammad, caressing the face of her son. “You must raise it gently and hope for the best.”

Many Iraqis said they prayed for, but did not expect, an immediate cessation of the violence that has plagued their lives since March 2003. They said they expected the new government to impose harsh measures against terrorists and insurgents and even would welcome some form of martial law if it weeded out the bombers.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials told Associated Press Radio yesterday that Saddam would be handed over to the Iraqis within a week, but stressed that the former dictator would remain in American custody for now.

“Prime Minister Allawi has said there are no facilities that he has available to hold Saddam in the amount of security that would be required, so he has asked the multinational forces to retain physical custody while legal custody is transferred over to the people of Iraq,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy operations chief.

It could not be determined last night whether Iraq’s dictator of 34 years had watched the ceremonies in his cell.

Mr. Allawi, in his remarks, seemed ready to reverse some CPA decisions that have been criticized for fueling the insurgency. He promised to expand the civil-defense corps and expand salaries and benefits for active and retired soldiers.

David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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