Published June 30, 2004
For a reporter covering Iraq, it was like winning the Daily Double.
Last December I was the first reporter to crawl into the spider hole where Saddam Hussein was nabbed -- the place where the old Iraq ended.
And this week I was one of a small group of reporters allowed into the elegant and spacious room where the new Iraq was being born -- the scene of the low-key ceremony symbolizing the handover of sovereignty from the Coalition to the new Iraqi interim government.
The timing of the Saddam capture was, of course, a surprise. But we thought we knew what to expect with the power transfer proceedings. Wrong.
The first inkling we got that something was afoot was the night before June 28. I was told to go to the coalition's secure Green Zone the next morning for a backgrounder with outgoing Chief Civil Administrator Paul Bremer.
This seemed fine, except the word came to us from Interim Prime Minsiter Iyad Allawi's office, a mixed protocol message that perked up our antennas a bit.
When we arrived at our meeting point the next morning, we were whisked to the one-time Saddam guesthouse that is home to offices of the new Iraqi leadership. I asked one staffer what was happening. He looked at me and said, "It's ‘Game Day.’"
The news that the transfer was happening two days early caused the small gathering of reporters to break out in fits, especially when the organizers took away all of our phones.
But it was all for the best. The decision to move the event up was done for two reasons: Because it kept any militants planning deadly mischief off-balance and, we're told, because the Allawi government was eager to get to work.
They sure didn't waste too much time with what was a momentous event. And they also didn't crowd the room with too many extra folk. Just the Iraqi President, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Chief Justice on one side, and Bremer and his aides on the other. After a letter was passed from one side to the other, there were some comments offered. The Iraqis seemed to be clear about the task at hand.
"We are determined to continue," said President Ghazi Al-Yawer. "We are committed. There is no way to turn back. We are committed."
As for Bremer, he sported his trademark tie/blazer, chino pants and work boots -- and a look of relaxed, satisfied contentment. I asked him if, after 14 months of doing a backbreaking job, he felt it was all worth it for himself and for the Iraqi people.
He was unequivocal in his response. After listing the various scenes of atrocious behavior of Saddam's regime -- mass graves, torture rooms, you name it -- he concluded, "Anybody who's seen these things, as I have, will know what I know, which is Iraq is a much better place. It was absolutely worth it."
With that, Bremer gave an emotional farewell to his staff and left via helicopter from the Green Zone to Baghdad International Airport. Then to parts unknown via a C-130 for some very well earned R&R. The folks he left behind will have to make the country work -- the leadership of a now sovereign government.
Just about everyone agrees that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi seems to be the right man at the right time to lead Iraq. While there's grumbling from some quarters about his long-term exile status and connections with the CIA, his no-nonsense, tough-guy approach to dealing with the terrorism still wracking this country is being welcomed by many.
That attitude came through in the official swearing-in ceremony that also happened the same afternoon. In his closing comments Allawi said, "I'm calling on all the sons of Iraq to stand up and destroy the foreign terrorists who are killing our citizens and destroying our country."
That event was held in what is now called the Government building inside the Green Zone. A building that, ironically, once was the center for planning Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction programs. Now it is used to plan "democratic reconstruction."
We were watching next door in the grandiose convention center, also built with Saddam's oil money. One of the screens set up for the press was showing Fox News programming, which carried the handover proceedings in full. The other screen was showing the Arab news network Al-Jazeera. And guess what? It was running the events as well.
Again, the shifting schedule of the handover events was aimed not just at keeping me and the other members of the press confused, but the terrorists off balance. Maybe instead of readying their next improvised explosive device, they were catching a little TV. And maybe a few of them got the new message: The U.S.-led Coalition might not be formally in charge any longer, but some even tougher-minded Iraqis are.