US returns sovereignty to Iraqis

TRANSFER OF POWER: The secretive, low-key ceremony took many in Iraq by surprise and was apparently aimed at preventing a spectacular guerrilla attack tomorrow


Tue, Jun 29, 2004 - Page 1

The US handed sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government two days earlier than expected yesterday, aiming to forestall guerrilla attacks with a secretive ceremony formally ending 14 months of occupation.

Iraq's outgoing US governor Paul Bremer handed a letter to Iraq leaders sealing the formal transfer of powers before immediately flying out of the country.

The low-key ceremony was over before it was announced and came as a surprise to ordinary Iraqis. Its hurried and furtive nature appeared to reflect fears that guerrillas could stage a spectacular attack on the scheduled date of June 30.

At a second ceremony in the afternoon -- this time broadcast live on Iraqi television -- the government was sworn in and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi urged all Iraqis to stand together against foreign militants wreaking havoc in the country.

"I call on our people to stand united to expel the foreign terrorists who are killing our children and destroying our country," Allawi said, in comments broadcast around the world.

At the earlier ceremony, which formally transferred sovereignty at 10:26am, President Ghazi Yawar hailed "a historic day, a happy day, a day that all Iraqis have been looking forward to".

US and British officials say the handover is a key step on the path to democracy in Iraq, but one of the government's first actions as a sovereign power is expected to be the imposition of emergency laws, including curfews, to crack down on guerrillas.

US officials attending a NATO summit in Istanbul admitted that thwarting a surge in attacks believed planned for tomorrow's formal handover date was a factor in the decision to advance it to yesterday, which they said Allawi had requested.

"We have said all along that we believed that the terrorists on the ground were going to do everything they can to literally and figuratively blow up the handover of sovereignty," one official said.

Such an attack could have damaged attempts by US President George W. Bush to be seen to be starting to disengage from Iraq, where hundreds of US soldiers have died since last year's invasion.

Although Allawi's government will have "full sovereignty", according to a UN Security Council resolution, there are important constraints on its powers.

It is barred from making long-term policy decisions and will not have control over more than 160,000 foreign troops who will remain in Iraq.

The government has the right to ask them to leave, but has made clear it has no intention of doing so.

Allawi said after the handover that he was committed to holding elections in January as scheduled.

As part of the handover, former president Saddam Hussein will soon go before an Iraqi judge to be charged and transferred to Iraqi legal custody, but will still be physically held by US-led forces, a military official said.

In other developments, a roadside bomb killed a British soldier in the southern city of Basra and wounded two others yesterday morning.

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