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9:39 PM Thu, Oct. 18th

Iraq handed to Iraqis two days early

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The U.S.-led coalition today transferred sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government two days early in a surprise move that apparently caught insurgents off guard, averting a feared campaign of attacks to sabotage the highly symbolic step toward self-rule.

Legal documents transferring sovereignty were handed over by U.S.

governor L.

Paul Bremer to chief justice Midhat al-Mahmood in a small ceremony in the heavily guarded Green Zone.

Bremer took charge in Iraq about a year ago.

"This is a historical day ...

a day that all Iraqis have been looking forward to," said Iraqi President Ghazi Al-Yawer.

"This is a day we are going to take our country back into the international forum."

Militants had conducted a campaign of car bombings, kidnappings and other violence that killed hundreds of Iraqis in recent weeks and was designed to disrupt the transfer, announced by the Bush administration late last year.

Intially, the Americans were thought to have planned for about one more year of occupation.

"Iraqis are happy inside, but their happiness is marred by fear and melancholy," said artist Qassim al-Sabti.

"Of course I feel I'm still occupied.

You can't find anywhere in the world people who would accept occupation.

America these days, is like death.

Nobody can escape from it."

Two hours after the ceremony Bremer left Iraq on a U.S.

Air Force C-130, said Robert Tappan, an official of the former coalition occupation authority.

Bremer was accompanied by coalition spokesman Dan Senor and close members of his staff.

Bremer's destination was not given, but an aide said he was "going home."

The new interim government was sworn in six hours after the handover ceremony, which Western governments largely hailed as a necessary next step.

The Arab world voiced cautious optimism, but maintained calls for the U.S.

military to leave the country quickly.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi delivered a sweeping speech sketching out some of his goals for the country, urging people not to be afraid of the "outlaws" fighting against "Islam and Muslims," assuring them that "God is with us."

"I warn the forces of terror once again," he said.

"We will not forget who stood with us and against us in this crisis."

Members of Allawi's Cabinet each stepped forward to place their right hand on the Quran and pledged to accept their new duties with sincerity and impartiality.

Behind them, a bank of Iraqi flags lined the podium.

"Before us is a challenge and a burden and we ask God almighty to give us the patience and guide us to take this country whose people deserves all goodness," said President Ghazi al-Yawer after taking his oath.

"May God protect Iraq and its citizens."

The NATO alliance quickly said it would begin training the Iraqi military, which faces a daunting task in putting down the growing insurgency threatening the country.

President Bush marked the transfer with a whispered comment and a handshake with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, gathered with world leaders around a table at a NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey.

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 reached out to shake hands.

Defense Secretary Donald H.

Rumsfeld beamed.

Bush was briefed Sunday that the Allawi government was ready to take power early.

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.

Bremer's last moments in Iraq were spent in a meeting with Lt.

Gen.

Ricardo Sanchez, the top American commander in the country.

Although the interim government will have full sovereignty, it will operate under major restrictions.

The interim government will only hold power seven months until there must be elections "in no case later than" Jan.

31.

The Americans will still hold responsibility for security.

And the interim government will not be able to amend the interim constitution.

That document outlines many civil liberties guarantees that would make problematic a declaration of emergency.