An interim Iraqi government took power Monday after a furtive ceremony meant to preempt insurgent attacks that could have disrupted the hand-over.
It was an inauguration on the run. After transferring authority, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III left for the airport.
Iraqi and Coalition Provisional Authority leaders attended a makeshift morning ceremony in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone two days before the hand-over was to take place. A small coterie of foreign and Iraqi reporters was summoned with 30 minutes’ notice.
Ministers of a caretaker government with limited powers were sworn in nearly five hours later, after Bremer had departed the country on a C-130 transport plane.
U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, who will head a massive embassy here, arrived after nightfall and was to present his credentials to the new government soon.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, little-known to most Iraqis after spending more than three decades in exile, took the oath of office on a red Koran and urged his countrymen to close ranks to defeat a fierce insurrection responsible for a spree of kidnappings, assassinations, car bombings and beheadings.
On Monday, Iraq seemed to have been spared a major attack like those that have recently gripped this nation. But after nightfall, Al Jazeera satellite television reported that militants had killed a U.S. soldier held hostage since early April.
The dead man was identified as Pfc. Keith M. Maupin, of Batavia, Ohio, who had been missing since an ambush on a convoy west of Baghdad on April 9. The U.S. military said it could not immediately confirm whether Maupin was the man shown being shot in a grainy videotape.
Lethal violence had escalated in the days before the hand-over. Militants recently captured five hostages -- three Turks, a Pakistani contractor and a U.S. Marine -- and threatened to kill them unless their demands were met. The group holding the Turks is headed by Jordanian-born fugitive Abu Musab Zarqawi, who has links to Al Qaeda.
On the day sovereignty was transferred, Britain’s Defense Ministry said a soldier from Glasgow, Scotland, was killed by a bomb in Basra.
In his televised inaugural address, Allawi called on his people to “stand united to expel the foreign terrorists who are killing our children and destroying our country.”
In Baghdad, some motorists honked their horns in the snarl of midday traffic when they heard about the hand-over. At times, celebratory gunfire punctuated the air.
Bremer executed the official hand-over at 10:26 a.m., presenting a blue binder of legal documents to Iraqi Chief Justice Mahdi Mahmood in a reception room with faux French furniture and little decor.
“You have said, and we agreed, that you are ready for sovereignty,” Bremer told the assembled dignitaries. “I will leave Iraq confident in its future.”
The ceremony lasted about 20 minutes and involved a mere handful of U.S. and Iraqi officials perched on chairs and sofas.
There was no sense of victory, no mood of euphoria. All seemed aware of the weakness of the new government. Many Iraqis have questioned the interim government’s legitimacy, and insurgents have threatened to assassinate Allawi.
Interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer thanked Bremer and the U.S.-led coalition for restoring the country to Iraqi control.
“There is no way to turn back now,” he declared proudly.
Bremer also gave Allawi a letter from President Bush asking that normal diplomatic relations be restored. In less than two hours, the face of the foreign occupation for more than a year had departed.
In Istanbul, Turkey, at a meeting with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, Bush hailed the hand-over. “After decades of brutal rule by a terror regime, the Iraqi people have their country back,” Bush told a news conference. “This is a day of great hope for Iraqis, and a day that terrorist enemies hoped never to see.”
Supporters and critics of U.S. policy in Iraq were pleased at word of the early transition. NATO allies congratulated Bush at the summit. Iran issued a statement saying it welcomed “any step toward the ending of the occupation.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he welcomed Iraq “back into the family of independent and sovereign nations.” Annan spoke from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on his way to Africa.
Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan’s senior advisor who helped select the interim government, said he hoped that the new Iraqi leaders could quickly establish control of the country and show that the presence of foreign troops would only be temporary.
“We hope that this is going to be a true beginning and those who are opposing occupation will now consider that opposing occupation is not necessary anymore and that both sides -- the government and these people -- will try and find a common ground to build Iraq,” said Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister.
U.S. officials said they had accelerated the hand-over because everything was in place and Allawi had said it would strengthen his hand against insurgents.
“I think we managed to surprise the terrorists and insurgents today,” said Iraqi National Security Advisor Mouwafak Rabii.
Despite the moved-up transfer of power, the new government proclaimed June 30 Iraq’s new independence holiday.
Although the hand-over was cheered by some Iraqis, little is expected to change in the day-to-day running of the country. All 26 government ministries had already been put in the hands of the coalition-appointed Cabinet members, and their once-powerful U.S. “senior advisors” had been shorn of final decision-making authority.
But in the vital matters of security and spending, control will be vested respectively in the 160,000 foreign troops in the country -- the great bulk of them U.S. forces -- and the interim National Council, to be convened next month. The transitional parliament of 100 members will include U.S.-selected politicians from the defunct Iraqi Governing Council and civic leaders appointed by the occupation.
A June 8 resolution by the U.N. Security Council gives the U.S.-led multinational force the right “to take all necessary measures to contribute to the security and stability in Iraq.”
That portfolio accords the foreign forces broad influence in the country. They continue to control Baghdad International Airport, although plans are advancing for civilian operation by mid-August.
Border security will be the joint responsibility of coalition and Iraqi forces, which will also try to protect oil facilities.
On Saturday, Bremer issued an edict granting immunity from Iraqi law for U.S. soldiers and thousands of civilians engaged in reconstruction contracts.
Many Iraqis resent the presence of foreign troops, but the widespread violence waged by insurgents makes the interim government reliant on the superior U.S. forces. Iraq’s 84,000 police, 40,000 civil defense troops and 3,000 soldiers are poorly equipped and lack sufficient training. “We need them here,” Sgt. Waadi Mohammed of the fledgling army said of the coalition forces. “I don’t want them to go. We would kill each other.”
Monday’s conversion of the coalition authority’s headquarters to a U.S. Embassy annex was a tangible sign of how little will change after the transfer. About two-thirds of the 3,000 CPA employees will leave Iraq by mid-July, but the core of the occupation will remain to guide the new Iraqi administration.
Negroponte is expected to work out of the former CPA headquarters until a new U.S. embassy is functional, unlikely before next year. Allawi’s government is authorized to shape the national elections expected within seven months, but Bremer signed a sheaf of U.S.-crafted laws that will put Washington’s stamp on the voting structure. An election law he signed June 1 creates a seven-member commission with the power to exclude political parties and candidates deemed undemocratic.
U.S.-approved policies enacted this month also create commissions to ensure media independence, anti-corruption efforts and exclusion of former Baath Party members from the power structure. They also ensconce Allawi’s choices for key advisory roles, like national security and intelligence, for five years, imposing them on the permanent government that is expected to emerge from national elections due in January.
The interim government will have the power to overturn some U.S. edicts and in some matters has signaled that it will. Bremer suspended the death penalty during his tenure. Allawi and others have said they want the ultimate punishment restored in time for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s prosecution.
Before the transfer, Bremer’s team directed the allocation of $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds. What remains unspent will be managed by Negroponte’s staff, not Allawi’s government. Iraqi officials had input on how to spend nearly $15 billion in Iraqi money, but the CPA determined the 2004 budget.
The 58-year-old leader pledged during the hand-over ceremonies to hold elections for a new government by the Jan. 31, 2005, deadline set by the coalition. But he has also alluded to delay if security conditions worsen, as well as the possibility of invoking a state of emergency that would suspend some of the civil rights his team enshrined in a temporary constitution.
Rehiring essential personnel fired because they belonged to Hussein’s Baath Party is a priority for many in the new hierarchy. The Education Ministry has already reemployed 4,000 of 11,000 senior administrators sacked under Bremer’s de-Baathification order.
“Most of these people were forced to become Baathists against their will. They had to do it to get their jobs and benefits,” said Education Minister Sami Mudhaffar, a former Baghdad University president.
Asked how helpful the past 15 months of coalition rule had been in reforming Iraq’s educational institutions after 35 years of dictatorship, Mudhaffar recalled a favorite Iraqi proverb to explain the nation’s eagerness to tackle its own problems.
“Nothing scratches an itch like your own fingernail,” he said, breaking into a grin.
Times staff writers Maggie Farley in Ottawa and Maura Reynolds in Istanbul, Turkey, and special correspondent Ashraf Khalil in Baghdad contributed to this report.