Monday's official handover of sovereignty by U.S.-led coalition forces to the interim Iraqi government was an historic moment filled with symbolism and brilliant in timing. Whether it blunts the insurgents' campaign of violence and jump-starts an era of promise remains to be seen.
U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer signed the transfer papers, then departed for the United States to signal that a real transition had begun.
The transfer was accomplished two days ahead of the announced June 30 handover date, at the behest of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. It was a smart move that caught the insurgents off-guard, possibly preventing a coordinated attack to disrupt the handover.
The violence will continue and may intensify - a point underscored Monday by reports that Spc. Matt Maupin of Clermont County may have been killed by his captors - but the quick-count handover may have thwarted a major strategic and propaganda victory for the insurgents.
Despite the transfer, the reality is that the coalition, with 135,000 U.S. troops plus 20,000 from other nations, continues to hold considerable power in Iraq. The interim leaders will operate under a set of restrictions, many of which were insisted upon not by the United States, but by Shiite clergy wary of an unelected government's power.
But the handover wasn't simply symbolic. U.S. forces, for example, will hand over former dictator Saddam Hussein to the Iraqis, who will indict him this week, Iraqi officials said. Training the security forces that will give the Iraqi government real clout is now the key task. The 26 heads of the NATO nations this week pledge to help train these forces.
What happens then, especially as Iraq moves toward elections scheduled for the end of January, will tell the tale. Each attack on Iraqi forces and institutions will expose anew the lie that the insurgents' target is American occupation. Their real target is the Iraqi people's right to freedom and self-determination in a diverse, tolerant society.
"Iraq will be for all the Iraqis, regardless of religion and ethnicity. All will enjoy full citizenship, a country that enjoys justice," Allawi said. Let us fervently hope so - both for the sake of the Iraqi people, and for all the Americans who sacrificed so much to help Monday's handover happen.
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