Prague, 28 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- L. Paul Bremer turned over power to Iraqi leaders today in his last decree as head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
"We welcome Iraq's steps to take its rightful place in equality and honor among the free nations of the world -- sincerely, L. Paul Bremer, ex-administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority."
The decree, read in a meeting with Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, marks the end of the U.S.-led CPA's yearlong administration of the country and the official start of Iraq's interim sovereign government.
The turnover is being widely hailed by governments outside and inside the region as putting Iraq on the road to representative government.
French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Catherine Colonna called the handover "a step in the political process that continues up to 2005. Others must follow, and France expresses its wish for success to the interim government and the Iraqi people."
German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Antje Leendertse said that "for Iraq, this is an important step on the road back into the community of independent nations."
U.S. and European leaders also jointly endorsed the new government at the NATO summit in Istanbul, which is focusing largely on Iraqi security. The alliance offered "full cooperation to the new sovereign interim government as it seeks to strengthen internal security and prepare the way to national elections in 2005."
Iraq's neighbors Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, and Turkey also praised the transfer.
Today's turnover is reported to have initially caught many governments by surprise because it had widely been expected to take place two days later -- on 30 June.
"We welcome Iraq's steps to take its rightful place in equality and honor among the free nations of the world." -- Outgoing CPA head L. Paul Bremer
Washington has yet to say why it opted for today instead, creating some speculation that the decision might have been motivated by security concerns.
Journalists in Baghdad were notified the ceremony would take place just one hour before it began. Those few who managed to get in time to the U.S.-controlled "green zone" in central Baghdad found themselves witnessing a hasty and informal event attended only by essential U.S. and Iraqi officials.
One reporter asked Prime Minister Allawi immediately after the ceremony if the scheduling was connected to a wave of insurgent attacks in recent days. The attacks have sought to undermine public confidence in the new government's ability to deliver on promises of greater security.
Allawi said today's timing was not connected to the violence: "No, this is in fact something that we have been working toward urgently, and to protect our people, we have definitely been transferring sovereignty to the various ministers. A few days ago we finalized the transfer of sovereignty to 11, to the remaining 11 ministers."
Washington had promised to turn over sovereignty to Iraq by 30 June in an agreement with the United Nations. That promise, most recently included in the UN resolution passed on 8 June, did not set an exact day for the handover.
Still, many observers had expected the handover to be a high-profile ceremony to engage the Iraqi public's attention.
Instead, few Iraqis outside of the "green zone" were aware of today's ceremony until it was over. That could leave them to conclude for themselves whether the early handover took place in an orderly fashion, as promised -- or was a result of the insurgents' strength.
Shortly after the handover, Iraq's interim prime minister, president, and government ministers were formally sworn into office by a senior Iraqi judge.
for complete coverage and analysis of events in Iraq at RFE/RL's dedicated "The New Iraq" webpage.)