BAGHDAD, June 28 (UPI) -- The U.S.-led coalition that removed Saddam Hussein from power handed over sovereignty to a new Iraqi government Monday, two days earlier than scheduled.
Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accepted the transfer from Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
The handover, which was set for June 30, was moved up as attacks by insurgents escalated daily as the deadline approached.
Much like the perception of the U.S. post-war reconstruction effort, the transfer of power was a hasty and little-planned affair that left most of the Baghdad press corps standing in one building, while the event itself was conducted deep inside another secure building.
Even transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis has to be done with eye towards security in a country that remains wracked by rampant crime, a sophisticated and dangerous insurgency and a lagging economy after 14-months of American stewardship.
But the handover was more symbolic than anything else as most of the major transfers of power had already occurred in the days and weeks leading up to the U.S. self-imposed deadline.
The last of the 33 ministries of the Iraqi government were transferred to Iraqi control last week, and the decision to allow more than 150,000 mostly British and U.S. troops to remain in the country was never in doubt as a condition of the transfer.
With the CPA dissolved, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad now becomes the official point of contact between the two countries.
Hailed by American officials as the first real democratic government, despite being appointed by the United Nations, the administration of Allawi will now be responsible for running Iraq until elections planned for January of next year. But Allawi will rule within strict confines Bremer and the CPA established and will be unable to make changes to the U.S.-authored interim constitution without the overwhelming support of the 33 new government ministers.
Exactly two hours after signing the documents that transferred his authority to that of the interim government, Bremer boarded a U.S. military flight and left Iraq.
Although the U.N. Security Council resolution had called Monday's event a transfer of "complete sovereignty," the government put into place remains interim in many ways. It is barred from making "long-term" policy decisions, and although the interim government theoretically has the authority to ask the occupation forces to leave, it has made clear that it has no intention to do so.
Bremer's last months in command of Iraq saw the administrator issue nearly 100 orders, which cannot be amended until a permanent government is put into power after elections. The orders cover such regulatory minutia as requirements that Iraqis get driver's licenses, mandates on cars staying in a single lane while moving, restrictions on child labor, prohibitions on the illegal pirating of movie DVDs, and other rules that are so widely ignored in Iraq that the English language lacks a word strong enough to describe it.
But one major regulation that cannot be ignored and could offer major problems for the legitimacy of the new government is the sweeping immunity from Iraqi law that Bremer has given coalition troops and foreign contractors, many of whom operate fully armed in the country in near-paramilitary fashion. The Iraqi people -- whose resentment of these armed foreigners has sparked violence on many occasions -- will almost certainly chafe at the inability to prosecute any of them for crimes they commit while walking around Iraq fully armed. Such incidents could shape the view that Allawi and his government are merely stooges of the Americans.
While much of Iraq responded to the news of their new sovereignty with a shrug -- and in some limited cases, mortar and gunfire directed at U.S. troops -- Allawi has taken a tough rhetorical stance against the biggest concerns facing the frightened Iraqi people, which bought him some respect from the street. While virtually nobody interviewed by United Press International expressed any excitement at the transfer -- marked by a surprising lack of celebratory gunfire in a country that fires heavy machine guns in the air to punctuate international soccer victories -- the past few weeks have seen tentative confidence that Allawi has the tough, personal courage to take on the rampant crime and terrorism that has been on an upswing.
Allawi's credentials as a former Baathist-turned opponent of the former regime and his willingness to threaten criminals and militants with harsh punishment leads many Iraqis to hope that he has the strength to clean up a country that the American administration has left in severe social disarray.
On Sunday, his security services mounted their first major operation in an anti-crime sweep that included behavior by police that would spark major civil rights investigations in the Western world, but was widely perceived as a tough law-and-order approach.
No less than three times in the past week, an Iraqi has told UPI a version of a story that includes Allawi visiting a jail, while a known murderer was consulting with his attorney. According to the unverifiable story -- which may be untrue except in the minds of every Iraq who has heard it -- Allawi asked the attorney to leave the cell, told him not to represent known criminals, and then ordered the murderer shot immediately as a warning to others.
Each time the story is told as a positive sign of the changes to come.
But Allawi also faces an even bigger challenge than crime: He has entered into a personal blood feud with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who has become the public face of foreign fighters conducting what they consider a holy war -- or jihad -- against the American occupation of a Muslim land. This group has taken responsibility for dozens of bombings -- which typically target Iraqis in an effort to kill collaborators and sow insecurity -- and the beheading of several foreign captives. It now has strong ties to fundamentalists in the so-called Sunni triangle, primarily the restive city of Fallujah.
How Allawi handles this threat, posing far greater danger than carjackers and rapists, is critical for the survival of the interim government and the process towards elections. But early indications are that even radicals opposed to the U.S. military presence in Iraq could support the prime minister if he produces a viable Iraqi response to the problems.
On Friday at the afternoon prayer -- the most important weekly prayer in Islam -- at the Sheikh al-Islam ibn Tamiyya Mosque in Baghdad there was a pointed sermon about terrorism.
Although the imam, Sheikh Mehdi al-Sumayda, said attacks on U.S. troops occupying Iraq should not be called terrorism, he sternly warned his congregation that kidnapping and beheading civilians as well as car bombs and suicide attacks that kill civilians are the work of nonbelievers and infidels. Yet the mosque known as devoutly fundamentalist is named after the man whose teachings directly inspired both al-Qaida and Zarqawi, and Sumayda had been held at Abu Ghraib prison for seven months by the Americans for being a leader of the resistance. Nevertheless, his mosque and dozens like it across Baghdad last Friday put out the warning that car bombings and kidnappings of foreigners had to stop.
On the other side of Baghdad -- both literally and spiritually -- the clergy of renegade cleric Moqtada Sadr, who waged his own personal war against American forces with his militia for three months, were also telling crowds that while they remain against the occupation, they stand by ready to help the new government fight those who use such tactics to kill Iraqis.
These are all positive signs about the respect and fear that Allawi appears to command for now. But with Fallujah and much of the Sunni regions of Iraq completely controlled by resistance forces with excellent weapons, training, tactics and experience, and Allawi dependent on the inept Iraqi security forces and the deeply unpopular occupation forces, he will have to build even more coalitions. He has little room for error when balancing the need to crush insurgent Iraqis and their foreign allies while building on his fledgling public support.
Allawi minces no words. As he recently told reporters, the insurgency and security are his top priorities with violence increasing as the handover drew closer.
"We were expecting such an escalation, and we will witness more in the next few weeks," Allawi said. "We will deal with it, and we will crush it."