ISTANBUL, Turkey – The Bush administration expressed optimism Monday that the early transfer of power in Iraq (search) would strengthen the new government's hand to deal with rampant violence and the threat of terrorism.
President Bush (search) marked the transfer with a whispered comment and a handshake with British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search), gathered with world leaders around a table at a NATO summit. Stealing a glance at his watch to make sure the transfer had occurred, Bush put his hand over his mouth to guard his remarks, leaned toward Blair and then put out his hand for a shake. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a row behind the president, beamed.
Bush was briefed Sunday that the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (search) was ready to take power ahead of Wednesday's scheduled turnover. The transfer took place as Bush met with Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and other world leaders.
The administration had warned that terrorists would do everything in their power to prevent Allawi from taking office. In moving early, a senior administration official said, "He believed that it would improve his hand on facing the security threat, and the security threat is obviously increasing up to the day of June 30th. Is it going to prevent every act of terror? No, and I don't think anybody has tried to claim that."
The early transfer had been under discussion between Allawi and U.S. officials for at least a week, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks.
"Prime Minister Allawi was the person who believed he was ready," the official said. "This was his decision. All the ministries are ready. He made a conclusion yesterday it strengthened his hand to assume control early."
Last Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition transferred the final 11 of the 26 government ministries to full Iraqi control, meaning Iraqis were already handling the day to day operations of the interim administration.
Coalition administrator Paul Bremer went on a series of farewell visits to areas throughout the country over the past few days.
Bremer handed power to Iraqis in a private session in Baghdad. About 10 minutes later, Bush took his seat as scheduled at a NATO meeting in Turkey, Iraq's northern neighbor. There was no immediate mention of the news at the meeting.
Seated with Blair on his right and Secretary of State Colin Powell on his left, Bush scribbled notes and listened as NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer opened the meeting. Scheffer spoke of enhancing the newly enlarged NATO alliance's partnership with countries across Europe and Central Asia and building new bridges to the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Bush was expected to make a statement later in the day during a meeting with Blair. The two leaders were unshakable allies in the invasion of Iraq, taking heavy criticism from around the world but remaining steadfast.
Allawi's government is "fully prepared to receive sovereignty and run the government," the senior administration official said.
Allawi "believes this will improve and strengthen his ability to deal with the terrorist threat in the coming days and weeks," the official added. The official said Allawi recognizes the transfer will not stop the violence but "he believes strongly that this would help him by taking away one of the aspirational aspects of the terrorists" — to prevent a free Iraqi government from taking power.
"This is a day (that) the terrorist enemy hopes they never see," the official said.
"We are pleased we are ahead of schedule and this gives Prime Minister Allawi more leverage and strengthens his hand to deal with the threats inside his country," the official said. "This is a proud day for the Iraqi people. The president was pleased to hear that Prime Minister Allawi was ready, willing and able to accept these responsibilities early," the official said.