BAGHDAD, Iraq – Before the first cup of coffee, there were signs the news conference suddenly convened Monday morning was more than advertised — a simple briefing by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer (search).
Journalists were caught by surprise when they finally realized what was up — the formal handover of sovereignty from the U.S.-run occupation to the Iraqis two days earlier than expected.
Rumor quickly spread among the journalists escorted to a conference room in the villa housing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's (search) office: "The handover's today!"
Only six of Bremer's 25 advisers knew of the decision ahead of time. Bremer informed them earlier Monday that the Coalition Provisional Authority (search) ruling for more than a year was dissolved.
At about 10 a.m., the news was confirmed by coalition officials — who insisted on secrecy. Then, at 10:26 a.m., the transition became official.
"You have said, and we agreed, that you are ready now for sovereignty," Bremer told Allawi, Iraq's interim President Ghazi al-Yawer (search) and the other dignitaries gathered in the room. "I will leave Iraq confident of the future, confident the Iraqi government will be ready now to meet the many challenges" that lie before it.
Foremost among those challenges is the deteriorating security situation — car bombings, kidnappings, assassinations. For weeks, coalition officials had warned that insurgents might try to disrupt the transfer, which was expected to take place Wednesday.
Mortar shells exploded near the Green Zone on the day the new government was announced June 1. This time, officials were not taking any chances. Even when the handover was still set for Wednesday, officials had announced no formal schedule of events and had told reporters they would be given only 24 hours' notice.
When coalition officials confirmed the handover was imminent, journalists were told not to release the news until noon, Baghdad time. They were instructed to hand in their cell phones and two-way radios. The delay may have been planned to give Bremer time to get to the airport and catch a flight out of the country.
But word leaked out at the NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey, that the handover would be advanced by 24 hours. That set off a mad scramble as reporters tried to retrieve their phones from security guards.
A few reporters managed to leave the conference room and get their phones. Irate security guards slammed the door and kept most reporters inside.
An Arab reporter pleaded with a security guard to let him get his phone. The harried guard snapped to a colleague: "I'm not going to be left in here with them."
At least 30 minutes after the ceremony and briefing were over, reporters were finally allowed to leave and retrieve their phones.
The announcement also caught world leaders by surprise, though they quickly welcomed it.
"We learned of it during the session this morning," said Catherine Colonna, spokeswoman for French President Jacques Chirac, who had opposed the Iraq war. "We took note of it, of course. The transfer of sovereignty is a highly awaited and important event."
A senior U.S. official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bremer and Allawi began discussing an early transfer 10 days ago but only made the final decision Sunday.