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Iraq half free and half fearful

Washington, June 28: Americans woke up today to the surprising news that their government had transferred power in Iraq to an interim local government under the cloak of secrecy and that Paul Bremer, their man who had ruled Iraq for 13 months, had left the country with no fanfare.

The transfer came two days ahead of schedule. Bush administration officials accompanying the President to the Nato summit in Istanbul acknowledged that the change was partly dictated by the need to catch Iraqi insurgents off guard and thwart their suspected plans to disrupt the original schedule.

Although Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s government will have full sovereignty, 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 US-led foreign troops who will stay in Iraq. The government has the right to ask them to leave, but has made clear it has no intention of doing so.

The return of sovereignty to Iraqis was a far cry from what the Bush administration had planned when they went to war last year and overthrew Saddam Hussein.

There was no celebratory gunfire, common in Iraqi communities for everything from weddings to victory in football matches. In fact, Iraqis were not even aware that they were regaining the right to rule their country. Arabic TV channels were able to put together live coverage of only the swearing-in of the new government held later, not the brief event at which power was handed over.

Popular scepticism about the transfer of power in Baghdad was reflected at a briefing in Istanbul for reporters accompanying President George W. Bush.

“Security seems to be the key thing for the Iraqi government,” pointed out one reporter. “Allawi indicated that elections might not be held in January if there is not security. And they can’t even secure a 20-minute transfer-of-sovereignty ceremony that was planned for...”

The handover was arranged in a room which was used by Iraq’s former governing council appointed by the Americans. Bremer and members of the interim government sat around a table with a bowl of flowers and a small Iraqi flag.

The flag had “Allahu Akbar” written across it in Saddam’s handwriting. A new national flag, introduced during coalition occupation, has been rejected by most Iraqis in favour of the old one.

At a second ceremony in the afternoon — this time broadcast live on Iraqi television — the government was sworn in. Allawi said: “I call on our people to stand united to expel the foreign terrorists who are killing our children and destroying our country.”

At the earlier ceremony, 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.

Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had hoped to gain political mileage from the advanced schedule for the handover with internationally televised comments in the presence of several world leaders attending the Nato summit immediately after the secretly-planned ceremony in Baghdad today.

But their careful planning was thwarted by Iraq’s foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, who unilaterally announced the change in plans after a meeting with Blair in Istanbul.

“Tony Blair did not flinch, his smile appeared to freeze for a millisecond before he went on to announce that he really couldn’t say too much — presumably because Mr Zebari had just stolen his thunder and blasted away days, if not weeks, of careful planning,” BBC reported.

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