- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

ISTANBUL — The first meeting of the NATO summit had just begun yesterday morning when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld passed a note over the shoulder of President Bush, who was sitting along the line of world leaders at the table in front of him.

Mr. Bush could have guessed what the note said, because he was among the few in attendance who knew an historic event was imminent, but a smile began to creep across his face nonetheless as he read it.

Written by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the note was short and to the point:

“Mr. President, Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from Bremer at 10:26 a.m. Iraq time. Condi.”

After reading it, Mr. Bush pulled out a black marker and scribbled across the bottom, “Let Freedom Reign!”

Putting down the pen, he checked his watch and then whispered the news to Tony Blair, whose seat at the president’s right hand was unintentionally symbolic of the British prime minister’s role as the United States’ unflappable ally in the war on terror.

The two men struggled to mask their broad grins as they shook hands and tried to refocus on the words of NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

The whole world soon knew the secret behind their smiles — a free and democratic Iraq.

The early transfer of sovereignty to the provisional government was worked out quietly in the preceding week when the Bush administration bounced the idea off of Iraq’s interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi.

The plan to move up the planned June 30 transition, said a senior Bush administration official, sprung from two different factors: the fear of massive terrorist strikes during the official transition ceremony and the happy fact that Iraqis had “moved at warp speed in taking control of its own government.”

Indeed, as of last Thursday, the last coalition-controlled ministry was turned over to a member of the interim Iraqi government, a process that had moved along department by department for weeks.

Mr. Allawi thought an Iraq in the hands of its countrymen rather than the United States would “strengthen his hand in dealing with the terrorist threat in his country” and agreed to the plan on Sunday night.

“This was a shot he called, and we were glad to oblige,” the senior administration official said.

Mr. Bush was informed that Mr. Allawi was seriously considering the plan during the day Sunday and shared that information with Mr. Blair at their first meeting that night.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell then was dispatched to call the members of what Mr. Bush calls “the coalition of the willing” in Iraq, which included 16 NATO countries, Australia, Japan and South Korea. The coalition does not include France and Germany, both of which vehemently opposed the war.

French President Jacques Chirac, who has stood in opposition to nearly every U.S. proposal for Iraq both before and after the war, was kept in the dark until yesterday morning. It was not clear whether he learned of the plan before or after the turnover was completed.

Shortly after Mr. Bremer handed over the letter declaring an end to the occupation, he headed for a military transport plane to take him back to the United States — a quick exit that was meant to drive home the point to the Iraqi people that they were no longer ruled by a foreign power.

The United States will consummate the transfer of power further in the coming days when new Iraqi Ambassador John D. Negroponte presents his credentials to Mr. Allawi.

By yesterday afternoon, a visible symbol of a new political reality could be seen high over Baghdad. The American flag that had flown above the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority was gone, and a large red-green-and-white Iraqi flag flapped briskly in its place.

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