Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Iraq becomes a sovereign nation once more

Early move is landmark, not ending

By Robert H. Reid
The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Gunfire didn't echo through Baghdad's neighborhoods, as it does so often when the time for celebration comes. The rutted streets of what had been Saddam Hussein's capital - usually chaotic, rarely quiet - were almost empty. No statues of despots came tumbling down.

Four hundred and sixty-seven days after American-led forces invaded Iraq, they gave it back Monday - on paper, at least.

A U.S. military presence more than 100,000 strong remains in Iraq, the heavily armed guardian of a fragile peace and opponent of terrorists and insurgents. The new government is not entirely the master of its nation's destiny - yet. Electricity is spotty, cities turbulent, highway travel perilous.

Monday's developments in Iraq:

• The U.S.-led coalition transferred sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government two days early in a surprise move apparently aimed at averting attempts to sabotage the step toward self-rule.

• Iraqi militants killed a captive American soldier, Spc. Keith M. Maupin, who had been held hostage for nearly three months, Al-Jazeera television reported. The U.S. military said it could not confirm the identity of the dead man.

• NATO leaders meeting at a summit in Istanbul, Turkey, agreed to help train Iraq's armed forces, responding to a request from the incoming Iraqi government.

• Four heavy explosions rang out in central Baghdad, near the U.S.-held Green Zone, just hours after the transfer.

• In the southern city of Basra, a bomb killed a British soldier and wounded two others, but such events are common and there was no indication the explosion was tied to the handover.

• Insurgents threatened to behead a U.S. Marine and a Pakistani driver they kidnapped unless the United States releases all Iraqis in coalition jails.

• Turkey rejected demands by militants holding three Turkish hostages for Turkish companies to quit doing business with U.S. troops.

• A coalition official said legal custody of Saddam Hussein will be transferred to the Iraqi government in the "next few days." A military spokesman said he will remain in a U.S.-run jail because the Iraqi government lacks a suitable prison.

• Reaction in the Arab world to the turnover is one of cautious optimism, but many people renew calls for the U.S. military to leave Iraq quickly.

But as of 10:26 a.m. Monday, the land once ruled by Saddam became a sovereign nation once again. The chief American civilian administrator was replaced by an ambassador, and as L. Paul Bremer left town, he wished the new leaders prosperity: "I will leave Iraq confident in its future."

From President Bush, who started it all, came this triumphal declaration: "The Iraqi people have their country back."

Some 145,000 foreign forces - most of them American - remain in charge of keeping rebellion at bay. But the U.S. message was emphatic and aimed at the Muslim world: Iraqis are beginning to chart their own future, with all its potential and problems - including a lethal insurgency the Americans admit they underestimated.

"Please let us not be afraid by those outlaws that are fighting Islam," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said in his inaugural address. "Some of them have already gone to the fires of hell and others are waiting their turn."

There were no immediate reports of violence or threats linked to the power transfer on Monday, an unusually quiet day for postwar Iraq. Not all was peaceful, but in postwar Iraq it rarely is.

In the southern city of Basra, a bomb killed a British soldier and wounded two others, but there was no indication the explosion was tied to the handover. Hours after the transfer, four heavy mortar explosions rang out in central Baghdad, near the U.S.-held Green Zone early Tuesday - a near daily occurrence in the capital. There were no injuries. And Al-Jazeera television said Tuesday that Iraqi militants killed a captive American soldier because the U.S. government didn't change its policy in Iraq.

The secretive handover ceremony Monday morning was moved up by two days to thwart insurgents' attempts at undermining the transfer. Hours later, NATO leaders agreed to help train Iraq's armed forces - a decision that fell short of U.S. hopes that the security alliance would take a larger role in Iraq.


The shift of authority was held in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone against a backdrop of Louis XIV furniture and a row of Iraqi flags - the same green-black-red banner that flew over the nation while Saddam was in power.

"The political arm of our operation here has gone out of business. Certainly the military operation has not gone out of business," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition deputy operations chief, told AP Radio.

Bush, whose Iraq policy has drawn criticism abroad and, more recently, at home, was passed a note from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that put it this way: "Mr. President, Iraq is sovereign." Bush wrote "Let freedom reign!" on the note and passed it back, according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Bush also said he wouldn't object to martial law in Iraq if it was declared by the interim government, which will hold power for seven months until, by U.N. Security Council resolution, elections are held "in no case later than" Jan. 31.

Though the government is unable to amend the interim constitution, it assumes responsibility for the daunting problems that have bedeviled U.S. occupiers for more than a year - public discontent, a ruined infrastructure that has angered the citizenry and, most urgently, the accelerating and violent insurgency that has left hundreds dead.

It must make initial attempts to stitch together a patchwork of ethnicities that Saddam pitted against each other - including Iraqi Kurds who had carved out a largely autonomous region in the north.

It also inherits responsibility for the fate of Saddam, the dictator-turned-prisoner whose harsh rule left tens of thousands dead. His brutality and Iraq's alleged terror links was one reason cited by Bush for the decision to invade.

Saddam will be transferred to the custody of his countrymen and will appear before an Iraqi judge in the "next few days" to face charges, officials said Monday. A military spokesman said he will remain in a U.S.-run jail because the Iraqi government lacks a suitable prison.

The months since his regime's demise have produced headache after headache for the U.S. government, even as it insists that slow, steady progress toward instituting democracy is under way.

As of Friday, 848 U.S. service members had died since military operations began last year, according to the Defense Department - 627 of them in hostile action. The number of Iraqi dead, officially unknown, is believed to be in the thousands.

On Friday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the war will probably be $55 billion to $60 billion if troop levels remain unchanged.

No weapons of mass destruction have been found - the chief reason cited by Bush for war. Bombs have ravaged Baghdad, claiming the top U.N. official in Iraq among their victims. Abductions are increasing, violence has spiked and videotaped beheadings have horrified the world.

Most problematic for Washington has been the abuse of detainees by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad - a scandal brimming with details of sexual humiliation that has antagonized even Iraqis who support the U.S. occupation.

Some Iraqis said Monday's transfer meant little.

"The real date will be when the last American soldier leaves," said Qassim al-Sabti, an art gallery owner. "Of course I feel I'm still occupied."

The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential, year-old Sunni clerical organization that has criticized the occupation, said Monday's events "deceived the Iraqi people and the world."

"If the handover of authority had been accompanied by the withdrawal of the occupation troops, it would have been a proper handover and today would have been a day of festivities for all Iraqis to celebrate," Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabbar, a member of the association, said on Al-Jazeera television. "But what took place, as we've seen, is a formality."

The most recent U.S. occupations are cited, even by the countries occupied, as success stories. Japan, vanquished in World War II, emerged from American occupation as a budding economic powerhouse. The road for Germany was bumpier but is considered a similar triumph.

The transfer of sovereignty places Iraq's immediate future in the hands of two men with widely different styles and power bases: Allawi, a Shiite Muslim, physician and former Baath Party member with longtime ties to the State Department and CIA; and President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni, American-educated engineer who lived for many years in Saudi Arabia and prefers traditional Arab dress.

Allawi lived for many years in London, while al-Yawer spent his time outside Iraq in the Arab world. Al-Yawer is seen as more in tune with Iraqi values and culture and has become widely popular as a champion of the Sunni minority. Although the presidency is largely ceremonial, many Iraqis expect al-Yawer to play an important role in public life.

Some world leaders expressed cautious enthusiasm at the developments. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, an outspoken opponent of the U.S.-led invasion, sent congratulations and offered "trusting collaboration." Jordan's King Abdullah II praised a "landmark in history of Iraq."

Others said the event was a sham. "Occupation will wear a new dress," said Syrian political analyst Haitham Kilani.

Ali Hussein Ali, a retired teacher, held blue prayer beads as he played dominoes at a Baghdad cafe.

"People are afraid to express their happiness," Ali said. "When security prevails, Iraqis will be very happy. They will celebrate when the American troops leave and when they are no longer taking orders from the Americans."

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