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CNN BREAKING NEWS

U.S. Turns Over Sovereignty of Iraq Two Days Early; Interview With Hoshiyar Zebari

Aired June 28, 2004 - 02:33   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


HALA GORANI, CNN ANCHOR: All right, breaking news on the handover of power in Iraq, possibly brought forward. We're joined from Istanbul live by CNN's European political editor, Robin Oakley. Robin, what can you tell us?
ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN EUROPEAN POLITICAL EDITOR: Hello Hala. Yes, I can confirm that there is going to be an official announcement later today that the handover of power to the interim Iraqi government is going to be brought forward to today. It was due to take place on Wednesday, the day after this NATO summit finished, but plans have been brought forward.

I understand the -- it was confirmed to Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, here at the NATO summit by Mr. Zebari, the Foreign Minister in the new interim government in Iraq. The thought originated, apparently, with Ayad Allawi and the interim government in Iraq over the weekend, and they put that thought to the other leaders, who are assembled here at the NATO summit. And it's been generally agreed, I understand, that that's a good thing to do.

As much as anything, I think it's a question of trying to disrupt the people who are trying to disrupt the handover. If they had particular violent plans for the next two days, they may be put into some disarray by the bringing forward of the handover of power but, certainly, we are expecting an official announcement later. That's confirmed by diplomatic sources here, Hala.

GORANI: And Robin, do we know if this was a last-minute decision?

OAKLEY: Well, yes, it does seem indeed to be last-minute because I think it was a thought that only occurred over the weekend to the Iraqi government. They've been discussing plans for coping with the escalating violence, the widespread violence across the whole of Iraq that has preceded the handover that people were expecting on Wednesday.

So I think they've been looking around for ways to hopefully diminished the degree of that violence, and this is one of the stratagems that they've seized upon. Nobody expects it to make a huge difference overall, but it could just slightly wrong foot some of the insurgents and some of the terrorists who are trying to disrupt the handover, Hala.

GORANI: And do we know how this is going to -- because this is, of course, quite surprising news -- how this is going to affect the actual handover itself? Will it be lower key? Will there be no ceremony? What else do we know?

OAKLEY: That -- we'll have to wait to hear those details when we get an official announcement, presumably in Baghdad, later this morning, Hala, but I don't think it's planned that there should be any change in ceremonies.

I've not heard anything to that effect as yet, but the practicalities will be that power is actually handed over today to the new Iraqi interim authority, so if they want to do anything like introducing curfews or anything of that sort, it will be within their power to do so from today, presumably -- Hala.

GORANI: OK, Robin Oakley reporting to us live with that breaking news from Istanbul, Turkey.

TONY CAMPION, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get to Baghdad in Iraq. Our Brent Sadler is there. Brent, as this news breaks across the Iraqi capital, what are the implications for the people who live there?

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you have to understand what's been going on of the here for the past week or so: accelerated violent attacks against Iraqi security forces and coalition forces, a deepening hostage crisis here, with death threats hanging over five hostages, three Turks, a U.S. Marine, and a Pakistani.

And the question was whether or not bringing forward the handover date, or if you like, a quieter day, wrong footing the insurgents, if you like, would actually make the transition perhaps not smoother, but less explosive. And I think that's what appears to have happened.

But also bear in mind, Tony, that over the past several days, in any case, the CPA has quietly been loosening it powers over Iraqi by handing over control to ministries. Not the final act of handing over sovereignty, but really, for the past several days most ministries have been under the leadership of the Iraqi ministers to hold the various portfolios.

What we are saying today, we understand, and I can tell you in the last several minutes or so, an increase in helicopter activity around our zone here, which is not far from the green zone, where we understand the handover is taking place or will be taking place in the next few hours.

Our first indications today came from Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, who's in Istanbul, and he was saying -- suggesting that the date could be brought forward as a challenge to what he described as criminals, as Saddamists and insurgents, those antidemocratic forces trying to disrupt the handover.

So this exercise appears to be an attempt to wrong foot the insurgents, but at the same time we could perhaps have some revenge, because death threats to those five hostages, all under the threat of being beheaded, ultimatums certainly for the Turks, the three Turks, where the NATO summit, of course, is being held in Istanbul and also death threats over the Pakistani, a contractor for a U.S. company, and a U.S. Marine. Video of that capture has been shown within the past 24 hours on the Al-Jazeera television network.

The first -- the marine from the first Marine expeditionary force stationed around Fallujah was taken about a week ago. That's been confirmed by U.S. officials here, and also his family in Utah. West Jordan, a suburb of Salt Lake City, confirmed that he is the one shown in the video. No precise deadline as to when he might be executed. So it does seem that things have been brought forward, accelerated, to wrong foot those who would wish to sabotage the transition to sovereignty, if not collapse -- topple the interim Iraqi government -- Tony.

CAMPION: Clearly, this has implications for security forces securing the capital against insurgents, or hoping to do that at the time of the handover, and perhaps we'll talk about that in a minute, but just tell us what this means in terms of the formal handover. I mean we weren't expecting to discuss this for a couple of days, but what actually is the physical process of the handover? Will there be a ceremony? Is it a signing behind closed doors? Do we know even what to expect?

SADLER: Well, we're having to wait for information on this. It's been really kept very much a closely guarded secret, the mechanics of how this handover process would take place. We do know that it will be taking place in this green zone. That is where the CPA -- the Coalition Provisional Authority, and Ambassador Paul Bremer have their headquarters.

This is a very, very heavily fortified area of Baghdad. It is where one of Saddam Hussein's main palaces -- compounds was located, a presidential site, and has been scene in the past 24 hours of several rocket and mortar attacks. Haven't inflicted any casualties, but we've certainly heard the boom of explosions as missiles and rockets have been fired into that green zone.

We have known that there will be a low-profile sovereignty handover. That's been signaled for the past several days by coalition officials. So the precise nature of how it will take place, speeches, and officials' document they are expected, but in terms of any ballyhoo, any great event in terms of bands, in terms of celebration, no, I don't think we're going to see that. It's going to be a low- profile, very much a businesslike handover of power from the old CPA authority to the new interim Iraqi government, two days ahead of what was planned -- Tony.

CAMPION: Does it seem, from what you've been able to establish in just a very short time in Baghdad itself, that the Iraqi delegation went to Istanbul with this already in mind? You know, is it something that's cropped up as talks were underway at the NATO summit? Do we even know this much?

SADLER: I think you have to look at the context of what's gone on specifically over this past week, with the acceleration of attacks, coordinated attacks some of them, against Iraqi security forces. It's a very heavy loss of life in the past week, also, the developing hostage crisis, the beheading of Kim Sun-Il, that South Korean last week, last month, the beheading of the American Nicholas Berg.

There has been an escalation in the grasp of violence here and, you know, the coalition and the emerging interim Iraqi government headed by the Prime Minister Ayad Allawi clearly want to be shown to be doing something different in terms of tactics. And one of these things clearly has been to bring forward the handover date. That appears to be happening now.

And number two also, is to establish in the minds of Iraqis, that it's not the U.S. co-led coalition that's going to be calling the shots in the future, it is the Iraqi interim government. That is the image that they have to work very forcefully at to portray and to convince the Iraqis that that's what's happening. Of course, one of the problems now it is that the handover is taking place effectively behind closed doors.

We're not seeing any live television pictures at this stage, although we do expect to see them later today, on what's going on, and things have been kept very low-profile and very secretive. Why? For obvious reasons. They did not want to give the insurgents a grand stage to commit some sort of spectacular horrific attack against civilians or the Iraqi security forces for the U.S.-led coalition at this critical time, and that's what we're seeing on the ground right now -- Tony.

CAMPION: Brent Sadler's live to us from Baghdad. Thanks for that, Brent, we'll come back to you shortly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, and we also have our Robin Oakley in Istanbul, Turkey. All our reporters working this breaking news story. For now, were joined by Norman Pearlstine, editor-in- chief of Time Incorporated. Thanks so much for being with us. What do you make of this handover being brought forward?

NORMAN PEARLSTINE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, TIME INCORPORATED: Well, I think that as your correspondents suggest, the handover comes forward in a way to try to destabilize the insurgents. It does suggest, however, that all of the focus is on the handover itself, which may make sense from a U.S. perspective.

From the insurgent's perspective, it just accelerates by a couple of days the beginning of a new campaign to destabilize the Iraqi regime. And while that may lead to some more peaceful handover, it doesn't have any implications longer-term.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And what do you think the new campaign will be beyond the handover?

PEARLSTINE: I think it will be continued violence, continued assassinations, in an effort to create the impression that this is an unstable government and one that is really just a puppet extension of U.S. power.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So do you think though that they will have more trouble targeting the existing government -- the interim government, that has the support of the United States because these people are Iraqis?

PEARLSTINE: The question is whether there is, in fact, a center in Iraq that is actually happy to get rid of Americans and ready to support this regime, and I think that's the test. That's what we don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, well, so you think that -- if the scenario in fact the mergers, where the insurgents start fighting with government security forces, because that's one of the options there, isn't that a Civil War scenario?

PEARLSTINE: Yes, that's exactly what it is, and that's exactly the risk. The tradeoff for us in two bad options is between withdrawing U.S. forces with their superior firepower, and we're not withdrawing but we are taking a secondary position, or alternatively continuing with the status quo for the last year, which is clearly unacceptable to the Bush government.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So what happens? What does the Bush government do if indeed, after the handover of power, the level of violence does not decrease and it becomes an intolerable situation for Iraqis and in fact, occupation forces alike?

PEARLSTINE: Well, the Bush government does whatever it can to try to get itself reelected in November, and that's its priority, and then ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And what is that?

PEARLSTINE: Well, if we knew that, we'd be in much different places than we are now, wouldn't we?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But what do you think they will do?

PEARLSTINE: I think they will try very hard to exercise as much power as possible under the various military agreements that they've made with the -- with the new government. They will try very hard to keep some of the natural dissidents, the Kurds for example, in place.

They will try to make Iraqis appear to be responsible for any actions against the insurgents. They will allow for Ba'athists to come back into some roles in power, which would be difficult for the Bush administration to do, having refused to allow them to participate a year ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And it's a difficult situation because, for instance, Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, would like more of an army -- would like to constitute more of a nationalist army, in the Middle East and tradition of Syria and other countries.

But the U.S., of course, wouldn't necessarily want that because it would give the country the kind of renewed military strength that it wouldn't want it to have. So that government is in a difficult position anyway you slice it. PEARLSTINE: Absolutely. It is -- it is -- they are looking for the best of a number of bad options in this case. In the United States, you hear a lot of people within the Bush government talking about a best alternative being something akin to what has happened in the former Yugoslavia.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, which would be a split do you think?

PEARLSTINE: A split in -- yes, I don't think that's, in fact, what is going to happen immediately. I think, for instance, the Kurds have fewer options than they've suggested, but I think there are a number of realists in Washington to suggest that there is no good answer to where we are right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, Norman Pearlstine, many thanks for being with us. If you could just stay with us for a few minutes while we sort of sift through all the elements we have and bring them all together and pull all the strands together. For now, Tony has more on the story.

CAMPION: Well, let's go to our European political editor, Robin Oakley, who's in Istanbul, from where this news broke. We're talking about the fact that the handover of sovereignty in Iraq will take place to days earlier than had been expected, that is to say, not on Wednesday but on today, Monday, and Robin Oakley, as I say, is that the NATO summit. Robin, remind us how this news broke.

OAKLEY: Well, essentially we've had confirmation from officials here, Tony ,that there is going to be the handover of power today, brought forward from Wednesday. It was my understanding that Hoshiyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister in the new Iraqi interim government, gave that information to Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, when they had a meeting this morning.

We have had no official announcement as yet. We're expecting that perhaps from Baghdad later. The nearest that we have had to confirmation that this was coming was what Mr. Zebari had to say when he came out from his meeting with Tony Blair.

HOSHIYAR ZEBARI, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: After June 30 it would be up to us to learn, to control our country, and to manage the security. And it would be an acid test for us to stand up to the challenge, and this is our country, this is our future, and we -there are many Iraqis in fact will stand up to the challenge, to meet these new challenges.

We are here -- this NATO summit to seek more help and assistance, training and equipment, inside Iraq. We need that because the main challenge, in fact, is we need to build our security, military capabilities to be able to rise up to these new challenges. And we have had a very good deal of support. We are reaching out to all member of NATO. We are asking them to take Iraq more seriously."

OAKLEY: And Mr. Zebari was the one who indicated that the handover could be brought forward. Of course, all these NATO leaders at the summit are fully agreed that a peaceful Iraq is in the interests of all of them here. That's why they're going to be discussing today, Tony, what help they can give in training the Iraqi security forces.

There's still not going to be a commitment from the NATO leaders actually to put in ground forces, peacekeeping troops on the ground to help the new Iraqi interim government. They're not going to do that far, but they are going to commit themselves, we understand, following an agreement among the NATO ambassadors on Friday, to a training initiative.

We still await the details of that, how much that training will be inside Iraq, how much it will be back in the other NATO countries because France and Germany for example have been adamant that they will not put troops on the ground. But certainly there is going to be a lot of talk here at the summit about the bringing forward of the handover. It doesn't change anything too dramatically.

Obviously, the insurgency will go on, but it will be seen as an attempt to wrong foot the insurgents to perhaps help avoid some terrorists spectacular, trying to coincide with the handover ceremonies that were due on Wednesday, and I think in general, it is a move that will be welcomed as a sign that Ayad Allawi, the Prime Minister of the interim government, and his team are starting themselves to call the shots and to set out their tactics in coping with the insurgency -- Tony.

CAMPION: You're saying there's clearly going to be talk about this later in the day at the NATO summit. I mean it must be causing something of a riffle, to say the very least, amongst all those who are in Istanbul to cover the summit. I'm thinking of journalists and analysts, people who have focused on the Iraqi, you know, over the last 18 months. What is the consensus that's forming, if you like, in terms of whether this smacks of panic or whether it's something more significant?

OAKLEY: No, I don't think it's seen as something smacking of panic. Certainly, the officials that I spoke to -- and there hasn't been very long for this news to spread as yet, Tony, it only came as the leaders were arriving at the summit this morning, but I think it is seen as a sensible decision, a last-minute decision, by Ayad Allawi and his team.

But as I understand it, it was a plan which emerged over the weekend and has since then been discussed with a number of the coalition leaders and other people here at the NATO summit, and that we're going to get the official confirmation of it later. But I think it is seen definitely as the new interim authority starting to put their own stamp on things to make their own plans.

Obviously, they have a tremendous amount on their plate in terms of coping with the wave of terrorism that we've seen over the last week or so. And obviously, this will also put a heavy focus on the question of hostages who are currently being held in Iraq under the threat that they will be beheaded unless various governments take various forms of action. And I think it's going to mean some overshadowing of the NATO summit in those terms, but the NATO leaders will probably be happy enough with that, Tony.

CAMPION: CNN's European political editor, Robin Oakley, who will have much more to say on this as the news develops and situation develops throughout the day. Here at the studio with us Richard Whitman is head of the Europe Program, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and thanks indeed for coming in.

What do you think? A sign of confidence in the new Iraqi administration? A sign of panic, the coalition wanting to ship the situation on as soon as possible, or a justifiable move, you know, bearing in mind the safety of hostages held by insurgents?

RICHARD WHITMAN, ROYAL INSTITUTE OF INTL. AFFAIRS: Well, I think clearly it's probably a sensible response to the situation that we see in Iraq, which is the interim Iraqi government has to get its political authority up, wants to be in harness, wants to be grappling with the problem and wants ...

CAMPION: But what difference does two days make?

WHITMAN: Well, it doesn't make a great deal of difference, of course, because in terms of the handover process that's been taking place, we've seen in Iraq itself, and as we heard earlier, that the Iraqis themselves have been taking responsibility for the areas they're now going to be concerned with, and so for the U.S. and for the European countries that are engaged in Iraq, it gives them a chance to take their foot of the accelerator, push the Iraqis to the front, but they're still going to be there. Europeans and the U.S. are still going to be there and are still going to be there for the long haul.

CAMPION: Do you think retrospectively this will be seen -- excuse me -- as a mature decision? I'm thinking of the fact that, you know, a date is announced months in advance and then suddenly because a lot of people have come together and are chatting at a summit -- excuse me -- it becomes possible and easy to change the date, but is that a mature thing to do?

WHITMAN: Yes, well clearly this morning smacks of panic doesn't it, that were sitting here discussing something which has just been advanced (ph) on us? But as far as the governments are concerned, they've clearly been planning for a date. It's not going to make a huge difference to them, the fact that we're moving things forward by a few days, and I guess what's all-important is trying to do anything that might make some difference in the short-term on the situation on the ground.

CAMPION: Of course, one of the other things or perhaps the main thing that the NATO summit had been expected to talk about was the training of Iraqi -- we're going to have to leave it there, Richard. Apologies. Let's go to Christiane Amanpour joining us with breaking news -- Christiane.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at 10:26 AM, half an hour ago local time here in Baghdad, the sovereignty of Iraq was transferred from the United States administration to the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government, as of this moment, is a sovereign entity.

It was a small-scale celebration here at the -- what they call the green zone and the office of the Prime Minister, and it was a attended by Ambassador Paul Bremer, who now refers to himself as the ex administrator of Iraq, along with the Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the President, Ghazi al-Yawar and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Supreme Court Justice, the head of the Supreme Court.

They were sitting together in a semicircle, and then when everybody was organized they stood up and the documents of the transfer of sovereignty was handed from Ambassador Bremer to the new Iraqi government. There were some words first from the President of Iraq, Ghazi Yawar, who addressed Paul Bremer saying, this is a historic and happy day for us in Iraq. It's a day that all Iraqis have been looking forward to. This is the day that we take our country back into the international community. We want a free and Democratic Iraq, and we want a country that is a source of peace and stability to the whole world.

They thanked the coalition, they thanked the troops who came here to liberate Iraq. They said that all the sacrifices would not be in vain, that there was no turning back, and that Iraq was committed to following through on the foundations that has been laid. Similar words then came from the Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, again referring to and historic day, that now Iraq is sovereign and so are its people.

They said that they had done today what they believe they are capable of. They believe they are capable of being in control not only of this country, but also of the security. Ex-administrator now, Ambassador Bremer, followed up with some words in which he said he was very proud to have been able to have done this, to have been able to, what he said, "meet your request to return sovereignty today." He said, "I leave Iraq confident that the new government is ready to meet the challenges ahead." At that point, that is when they had the handover of the documents, and then the Supreme Court Justice took the documents and passed it over to the President.

Now, on background afterwards, senior coalition officials told us that this is the last formal appearance of ambassador Bremer. There are no more formal ceremonies that involve the U.S. administration here, that ambassador Bremer will be leaving Iraq sometime later today. There will be following some ceremonies to swear in the rest of the government in the days ahead.

When we asked why this transfer had been moved up two days, because as you know, it was due to happen on June 30, they said that this was at the request of the new Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who said that basically with the current situation every day matters and Allawi said, "We are ready to go. We want to accelerate and handover and take over sovereignty." So that is what happened. Obviously, the violence and the need to have the Iraqis crack down has played a role in this, and probably also to keep the opponents off guard and to do it earlier than the telegraphed date had been.

Now, we also know and we've been told that ambassador Bremer delivered a letter from President George Bush to the Iraqi Prime Minister, requesting a resumption of diplomatic ties between the United States and the government of Iraq. Back to you.

CAMPION: Christiane Amanpour, with the news that Iraqis now once again a sovereign entity. The handover of power was 13 -- sorry -- 33 minutes ago. Christiane is still with us, and just tell us Christiane, any reaction on the streets of Baghdad to this news? Do people know yet?

AMANPOUR: Well, you know what? I don't know, because we're still inside this building, but I am sure this is going to be greeted in many quarters with great pleasure and great joy. Obviously though, the challenges are very real.

They even mentioned it today in the transfer of sovereignty ceremony, that the violence, the insurgency, the terrorism remains their prime concern, and in the next day or so we're meant to the told publicly what measures the new Iraqi government plans to impose in order to be able to fight this insurgency. So all of this going on in a background of the kind of insurgency that we've been reporting on.

CAMPION: Christiane Amanpour, live to us from Baghdad where the Iraqi government, as it now is, reassumed sovereignty of the country -- it's 35 minutes ago at 10:26 local time. You are watching CNN.

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