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The United States transferred sovereignty back to an Iraqi interim government two days earlier than expected yesterday in a surprise move aimed at preventing the handover being spoilt by guerrilla attacks.
The ceremony was a swift and furtive affair in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, heavily guarded by US troops. From there, Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Iraq, ruled the country for more than a year. Yesterday, as soon as he gave up his post, a sombre but relieved-looking Mr Bremer headed for the airport and left Iraq. His legacy is a land racked by war and violence. The cloak-and-dagger secrecy of the transfer of sovereignty underlines the degree to which US rule is being challenged in Iraq. The US had planned to continue the occupation for another year.
The morning handover ceremony was first billed as a simple press briefing by Mr Bremer. Then journalists were suddenly escorted to the office of Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister. There Mr Bremer, the interim President, Shaikh Ghazi al-Yawer, and other dignitaries were waiting. "This is a historic day … a day that all Iraqis have been looking forward to," Shaikh Ghazi said.
Outside the Green Zone Baghdad was unnaturally quiet. There were far fewer cars in the streets because people are making only essential journeys. Many better-off Iraqis have already departed for Amman or Damascus, expecting this to be a peculiarly violent week.
Most Iraqis welcome the formal end of the US occupation but wonder how much power is really being transferred. The US will keep 138,000 troops in the country. Salahudin Mohammed, 33, an engineer said: "I am optimistic. I hope the new government will make Americans leave the hearts of the cities."
Mr Allawi is trying to ride a wave of anger against suicide bombers and insurgents who kill Iraqi policemen. He urged people not to be afraid of "outlaws". As his ministers were sworn in later, he said: "I warn the forces of terror again. We will not forget who stood with us and against us in this crisis."
The problem for Mr Allawi is that Iraqis want him to get rid of the suicide bombers and the US occupation. If they feel he and Shaikh Ghazi are simply the Iraqi face of continuing American occupation, the new interim government could be discredited just as quickly as the old Iraqi Governing Council.
In theory, the new government will hold power for only seven months. Under a UN Security Council resolution, there must be elections by 31 January, 2005. But Mr Bremer instituted a special commission to vet candidates for office, with the power to ban those maintaining a militia. Since all parties maintain militias this would enable the commission to decide who will be in an election.
How far the Iraqi government will be from full control was underlined on Saturday when Mr Bremer signed an edict giving US and Western contractors immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law while they are working in Iraq. The contractors are unpopular among Iraqis who consider them grossly overpaid. Vital infrastructural power station and oil industry repairs have not been completed, or even begun.
The success or failure of the new government will largely depend on how far the US will really end the occupation. One critic said: "Over the past year, we have seen the US try to impose old-style 19th-century imperial control over Iraq. It failed disastrously. Now they will try to impose a Latin American-style government, with powerful security forces controlled by the US, of the kind that used to be common in 1960s."
The government is meant to be an interim authority. It cannot make long-term policy decisions. It could ask the US troops to leave but will not do so because it depends on them. But, as with the unpopular Iraqi Governing Council, to which its senior members had belonged, the new government is likely to put down roots and will be difficult to displace.
The US embassy and the Iraqi Reconstruction and Management Office, with 900 members, will replace the Coalition Provisional Authority but it will continue to occupy Saddam Hussein’s old Republican Palace. Many officials will simply change their name tags. John Negroponte, the new US ambassador to Iraq, will occupy a separate building but most of his staff will be in the Republican Palace which Iraqis are demanding back as a symbol of their sovereignty. Shaikh Ghazi asked President George Bush for the palace and was promised that it would be returned in two months.
Despite having a powerful army in the country the US has became politically weak. In April, it unintentionally provoked confrontations with the Sunni Arabs (20 per cent of the population) over the siege of Fallujah. At the same time it confronted the Shia (60 per cent of the population) in its ill-judged pursuit of the radical cleric Muqtada Sadr.
Iraqis in Baghdad know why the US is pulling back. Mr Mohammed, the engineer, said: "The main reason for the transfer of power is the military situation of the US army in Iraq and the Bush re-election." Resistance will not stop while there is an American army in Iraq. The new government will not have the strength to crush them. The White House is desperate to get the war off television screens and the front pages. But the guerrillas are too well-rooted to be destroyed, and they want Mr Bush to lose the election.