By Jon Smith and Gavin Cordon, PA
28 June 2004
The US-led coalition handed over sovereignty to the new Iraqi government today - two days earlier than planned.
The surprise move - formally ending the occupation by coalition forces - took place in a low-key ceremony in Baghdad's heavily-guarded Green Zone.
British and US officials said the transfer of power had been brought forward to "seize the political initiative" from anti-coalition militants who have been waging a bloody terrorist campaign.
The move was warmly welcomed by Tony Blair, attending the Nato summit in Istanbul, Turkey, who said that the new Iraqi government would enjoy international support.
"The important thing is to understand that the will of the whole international community now is with Iraq as it takes control of its own destiny," he said. "We are there to help and support from now on."
The scale of the security problem facing the new government was underlined when a bomb attack on a military convoy in Basra left one British soldier dead and two others injured.
Mr Blair's official spokesman said the handover had been brought forward from June 30 partly to combat the terrorists and partly to "seize the political initiative", but warned that it would not mean an end to the attacks.
"Nobody should think this means there won't be terrorist attacks," he said.
"Of course there will be, but as of this moment, what those terrorists are attacking is the representative government in Iraq. What they are not attacking is the coalition."
US officials with President George Bush at the Nato summit said the early transfer had been under discussion with the new Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi for at least a week.
One US official said: "This was his decision. All the ministries are ready. He made a conclusion yesterday it strengthened his hand to assume control early.
"He believes this will improve and strengthen his ability to deal with the terrorist threat."
He added that Mr Allawi hoped that the transfer would strengthen his hand by taking away from the militants their hopes of preventing his new government from taking power.
Following the ceremony, Mr Allawi said he had been putting in place strategies for protecting the Iraqi people.
"This is a historical day. We feel we are capable of controlling the security situation," he said.
Coalition forces are expected to remain in the country for many months to come in an effort to counter the terrorist threat.
After formally handing over the legal documents conferring sovereignty to the new chief justice Mahdi al-Mahmood, the US administrator Paul Bremer went straight to the airport and left the country on a US Air Force C-130 transport plane.
Meanwhile coalition officials in Baghdad confirmed that legal custody of the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein would be transferred to the new government within the week.
For security reasons, he will remain in the hands of US forces as the Iraqis do not have a prison strong enough to hold him.
The main task of the new Iraqi government will be to prepare the country for democratic elections at the end of January.
But the government faces a difficult struggle to restore security.
The militants - thought to be led by Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi, a Jordanian with links to al Qaida - threatened at the weekend to behead a US Marine and Pakistani driver working for an American contractor who they claimed to have captured.
They are also threatening to execute three Turkish hostages unless Turkish companies cease trading with coalition forces in Iraq.
The Stop The War Coalition said the move showed how "appalling" the security situation was in Iraq.
Convenor Lindsey German told PA News: "This demonstrates how little the situation has to do with the Iraqi people. The decision was taken by the Americans in secret, which has nothing to do with democracy."
The group is pressing ahead with a series of demonstrations on Wednesday, the original date of the hand-over.
Marches and rallies will be held across the UK with a national demonstration in London to protest at the continued "occupation" of Iraq.
Michael Berg, the American whose son Nick was beheaded in Iraq last months, is flying to the UK tomorrow to attend events organised by the anti-war movement.
Meanwhile, Subhia Hussain, general secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, told the annual conference of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union that the hand-over of power was a positive step, but he said the most crucial stage would be an end to the occupation and granting "real sovereignty" to the Iraqi people.
In a letter to Geoff Hoon, shadow defence secretary Nicholas Soames asked for clarification on a number of issues, including whether coalition forces would remain under coalition command following the handover, and how long Mr Hoon expected British troops to remain in the country.
Mr Soames asked: "Will the coalition forces in Iraq remain under the coalition command? What are the new rules of engagement?
"Has an agreement been reached on a policy for sensitive offensive operations? How long do you expect British troop numbers to be maintained at the current level?
"Furthermore, following the handover, does the multinational force remain subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of their parent states and immune from Iraqi legal jurisdiction?"
Mr Soames also asked the Defence Secretary who would be sitting on the country's new Security Action Committee and whether the UK would be represented on it.