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The Conflict in Iraq

White House to Take Low-Key Role in Hand-Over

June 23, 2004|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush has a penchant for the grand gesture. Almost 14 months ago, he heralded success in Iraq with a made-for-TV landing on an aircraft carrier and a nationwide address from the flight deck. But in the coming days, as the United States formally relinquishes control of Iraq, Bush and his top aides will be taking a lower profile, administration officials say.

The process will get underway today, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is scheduled to swear in John D. Negroponte as the new ambassador to Iraq. But, pointedly, Negroponte will not arrive in Baghdad until after sovereignty is transferred June 30 from L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to the interim Iraqi president, Ghazi Ajil Yawer.

"You don't want any confusion that it's somehow Bremer to Negroponte," a senior White House official said. "It's not. It's Bremer to the Iraqi government."

When Negroponte does arrive in Baghdad a day or so later, he will very deliberately travel outside the heavily fortified Green Zone to present his credentials to Yawer. "The message will be that we are going from being sovereign in Iraq to being one of 50 countries with diplomatic relations with a sovereign government," a senior State Department official said.

The change in approach illustrates how much the situation in Iraq has shifted from a political benefit into a liability for Bush.

Had the war and occupation gone more smoothly, "I can guarantee that there would be senior American officials taking part," said Robert Perito, an Iraq expert at the United States Institute of Peace, a government-funded nonpartisan think tank. "I think they're really leery of marking occasions in a way that might kick back on them or invite more questions as to why this hasn't worked out."

The day before the transfer, Bush will be in Istanbul, Turkey, attending a NATO summit. There has been considerable speculation that he might choose to pay a visit to Iraq before heading home, just as he made a surprise visit to troops in Baghdad at Thanksgiving.

White House aides insist that the president's schedule calls for him to be in Washington on June 30. But they made similar assurances at Thanksgiving. With Bush already in the region with his security entourage, it would be relatively easy for plans to change at the last minute. Still, the consensus inside and outside the White House appears to be that Bush is better off staying away from Iraq for the time being.

"We really have not spent very much time thinking about it," the White House official said.

Instead, aides are considering whether Bush should mark the hand-over by addressing the American people from the White House on June 30. However, he already is scheduled to make a major address from Istanbul the day before.

Whatever happens, the aides said, they want the attention to be on Iraqis taking over, not Americans stepping back.

"The focus will be on the Iraqi people assuming full responsibility for their country," a second White House official said. "That's where the focus should be, not on the coalition."

Other top administration officials are expected to be largely out of sight on the day of transition. Powell will be en route to Indonesia for a meeting. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is tentatively scheduled to be traveling in Eastern Europe.

Even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will keep his distance, traveling elsewhere in the Middle East. United Nations participation in the transfer ceremony will be limited to a representative reading a statement on Annan's behalf, said his spokesman, Fred Eckhard.

"While the U.N. ... was helpful to Iraq in forming the interim government, this is not a U.N. show. It's an Iraqi show," he said.

Details of the ceremony in Baghdad remain uncertain, local officials said. Officials are still trying to figure out whether the United States needs to present the incoming Iraqi government with some kind of "sovereignty" document.

The irony for Bush, said Rick Barton of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, is that though the decision to invade and occupy Iraq has become his signature issue, the less he is associated with the process, the more likely it is to succeed. And Bush needs it to succeed because of the upcoming election.

"They have learned that 'Americanizing' events is not a good thing," said Barton, an expert on postwar reconstruction. "Your primary market right now is the Iraqi public. That's the public that's helping shape how the American public feels about it."

John Fortier, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center, said that although the transition will not be the "triumphal march" the administration expected, the important thing is what comes next.

"This is a transfer that people will judge retrospectively," Fortier said. "The ceremony and the first few weeks will all be forgotten [by November] if it goes better or if it goes worse."

Times staff writers Edwin Chen, John Hendren and Mary Curtius in Washington, Maggie Farley at the United Nations and Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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