President Bush got the news Monday on a sheet of plain paper, folded in half and passed to him discreetly by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as the president sat at a huge round table with other NATO leaders.
The note was written in black ballpoint by his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and referred to a letter that U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III had delivered to Iraqi leaders minutes before. “Mr. President,” she wrote. “Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from Bremer at 10:26 a.m. Iraq time. Condi.”
Bush took out a black felt-tip and scribbled back: “Let Freedom Reign!”
The president checked the time on his watch, then leaned over and whispered the news to his neighbor, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. As other alliance leaders continued to listen to the session’s opening remarks, the two shared a smile and shook hands.
It was probably a moment of deep satisfaction for Bush, who has been sharply criticized by many European and Muslim countries for his decision to invade and occupy Iraq.
The transfer “marks a proud moral achievement for members of our coalition,” Bush told reporters during a news conference with Blair later in the day. “We pledged to end a dangerous regime, to free the oppressed and to restore sovereignty. We have kept our word.”
Bush said the transfer was accelerated to increase security in Iraq, including foiling plans for attacks Wednesday, the day the changeover had been planned. But it also caught leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization off guard.
Allies who had opposed the war and demanded a rapid transfer of sovereignty scrambled to adapt their positions and rhetoric. And instead of being on the defensive, Bush could concentrate on what he considered significant progress.
“Iraq today still has many challenges to overcome, we recognize that,” Bush said at the news conference. “But it is a world away from the tormented, exhausted and isolated country we found last year. Now the transfer of sovereignty begins a new phase in Iraq’s progress toward full democracy.”
Asked about suggestions that the new Iraqi leadership planned shortly to impose martial law, Bush and Blair insisted that strong security measures are not incompatible with the development of democracy. “It’s not going to be about taking away people’s freedoms,” Blair said. “It’s going to be about allowing those freedoms to happen.”
Bush denounced the insurgency, especially militant leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom the president described as “the guy who beheads people on TV.”
“Prime Minister [Iyad] Allawi, as the head of a sovereign government, may decide he’s going to have to take some tough measures to deal with a brutal, cold-blooded killer,” he added. “And our job is to help the Iraqis stand up forces that are able to deal with these thugs.”
Forces loyal to Zarqawi are believed to be holding three Turkish hostages and have threatened to kill them, increasing tensions at the summit.
“Look, they can’t whip our militaries,” Bush said. “What they can do is get on your TV screens and stand in front of your TV cameras and cut somebody’s head off, in order to try to cause us to cringe and retreat. That’s their strongest weapon. And we just -- and as Prime Minister Allawi has said publicly many times, he will not cower in the face of such brutal murder. And neither will we.”
In scenic Istanbul, considered the crossroads between Europe and Asia, large sections of the city center -- dubbed “NATO valley” -- remained swathed in fencing to protect the gathering of 26 alliance leaders.
Outside the security cordon, a rally of 2,000 protesters turned violent when some tried to break through the barricades. Riot police responded with water cannons, tear gas and plastic bullets. At least 40 policemen and 44 protesters were injured. Turkish TV showed some officers beating demonstrators with clubs and herding them into police vans.
Despite assertions by U.S. officials that relations with allies have revived, there were signs of tension. NATO’s growing role in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts waged by U.S.-led forces, have left many alliance members feeling stretched militarily.
France and Germany, members who fiercely opposed the war and U.S. occupation of Iraq, continued to express reservations about NATO involvement there. “I do not think that it is NATO’s role to intervene in Iraq,” French President Jacques Chirac told a news conference.
Chirac also bristled at Bush’s comments in recent days that the European Union should speedily invite Turkey in as a member. Turkey is the only Muslim member of NATO, and some European countries express concerns as to whether its culture and economy are Western enough for the EU.
“It’s not for him to give advice to the EU about such matters; it’s as if we were to tell the United States how to manage its relations with Mexico,” he said.
NATO members have agreed in principle to train Iraqi forces, but they have yet to agree on whether that training should take place inside or outside Iraq. France and Germany have said they will take part in training only outside the war-torn land.
“We will work out the details -- the who, the when and the where -- in coming weeks,” said NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer after the agreement on Iraq was announced.
Despite the lingering tensions, NATO leaders pledged Monday to expand the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan. They agreed to increase troop levels by 3,000 and start patrolling three new cities -- Meymaneh, Feyzabad and Baghlan -- in addition to Kabul and Kunduz.
Alliance members also said they had decided to provide military and technical support to help secure the Olympics in Athens this summer.
Special correspondent Amberin Zaman contributed to this report.