Bush Beats His Iraq Handover Deadline

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THE NEW AUTHORITY: Interim President Ghazi al-Yawar, interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, left to right, at the handover ceremony

George Bush made the decision yesterday to hand over sovereignty to Iraq—two days before the proposed June 30th deadline—after a request from the Iraqi government and its Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who had been discussing the idea with American officials for more than a week. After a phone call with Allawi from Istanbul, Turkey—where Bush is attending a summit of NATO leaders—Bush said it was okay to go forward the next morning if the security situation permitted. After phone calls early this morning from National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice to Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer in Iraq to make sure that the coast was clear, the decision was made to push forward. And after Bremer handed a blue document binder to Allawi in a small ceremony deep in the fortified Green Zone, it became official that Iraq was its own country and the U.S. immediately restored diplomatic relations that had been severed in 1990 after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

The decision to move up the handover of sovereignty only underscores the desperate security situation in Iraq. No one expected the Iraqis to take over with an inaugural parade and marching bands and baton twirlers and a speech before crowds of thousands but some semblance of a ceremony was expected. Instead, it was done bunker-style because of the threats to the new regime.

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Why was the move done at "warp speed," as one senior administration official put it? The official line here at the NATO summit is that the Iraqis are eager to get going. "It improves his hand," says a senior administration official, referring to Allawi. But there's more than that. Allawi has been saying that he wants martial law. Now that he has his own government, he has the political cover to do it in a way he couldn't before. Now it will be his martial law, if he proceeds, not the Americans'. Of course, it'll be kids from Watts and Wichita and elsewhere in the States who will be doing the enforcing. But the move may help to throw Iraqi terrorists off balance who might have been planning a spectacular attack for June 30th. Of course, administration officials are putting their best spin on it, saying "it shows this government is ready... . What this demonstrates is that they were fully ready to take control." Maybe. But it seems to more accurately reflect the deteriorating security situation.

The surprise move didn't do much to brighten up an already disappointing summit for Bush. He came to Istanbul with virtually no hope of securing more troops to help pacify the Iraqi terror movement—something the U.S. desperately needs. What he has instead is a commitment from NATO to help train Iraqis forces. That's not a bad thing but training is slow and even the terms of the training—will it be done in Iraq or in Europe? who will do what?—remains to be seen. What's crystal clear is that this is still an American fight and no communiqués issued here to the thousands of media—who are themselves inside a secured green zone of sorts—changed that.

To be fair, the speed with which the new Iraqi government has taken the reins of power has been impressive. Just a few weeks ago the idea of a June 30th handover seemed laughable. Now there's an Iraqi government that's serious and determined, albeit one that's propped up by U.S. forces. Iraq has a leader in Allawi who seems determined to become a kind of Conrad Adenauer, the famed German chancellor, who will seek legitimacy from his people just as father of modern Germany did from the ashes of World War II.

The irony, of course, is that Allawi is unlikely to gain legitimacy from Iraqis without bucking the United States to some degree and showing he's not a puppet. Easier said than done. Allawi will be more beholden than ever to the U.S. if he presses ahead with his suggestion of martial law or some other kind of full-scale crackdown on terrorists. In the coming days, American officials will publicly show deference to Allawi. John Negroponte, the newly minted U.S. ambassador in Iraq, will formally present his credentials to the new government. And the CPA signs will be packed up—in an very public display. But no one will be in any doubt that Iraq is George W. Bush's fight as much as Allawi's. Maybe even more so.