BAGHDAD — An interim Iraqi government took power Monday after a furtive ceremony meant to preempt insurgent attacks that could have disrupted the hand-over.
It was an inauguration on the run. After transferring authority, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III left for the airport.
Iraqi and Coalition Provisional Authority leaders attended a makeshift morning ceremony in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone two days before the hand-over was to take place. A small coterie of foreign and Iraqi reporters was summoned with 30 minutes' notice.
Ministers of a caretaker government with limited powers were sworn in nearly five hours later, after Bremer had departed the country on a C-130 transport plane.
U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, who will head a massive embassy here, arrived after nightfall and was to present his credentials to the new government soon.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, little-known to most Iraqis after spending more than three decades in exile, took the oath of office on a red Koran and urged his countrymen to close ranks to defeat a fierce insurrection responsible for a spree of kidnappings, assassinations, car bombings and beheadings.
On Monday, Iraq seemed to have been spared a major attack like those that have recently gripped this nation. But after nightfall, Al Jazeera satellite television reported that militants had killed a U.S. soldier held hostage since early April.
The dead man was identified as Pfc. Keith M. Maupin, of Batavia, Ohio, who had been missing since an ambush on a convoy west of Baghdad on April 9. The U.S. military said it could not immediately confirm whether Maupin was the man shown being shot in a grainy videotape.
Lethal violence had escalated in the days before the hand-over. Militants recently captured five hostages -- three Turks, a Pakistani contractor and a U.S. Marine -- and threatened to kill them unless their demands were met. The group holding the Turks is headed by Jordanian-born fugitive Abu Musab Zarqawi, who has links to Al Qaeda.
On the day sovereignty was transferred, Britain's Defense Ministry said a soldier from Glasgow, Scotland, was killed by a bomb in Basra.
In his televised inaugural address, Allawi called on his people to "stand united to expel the foreign terrorists who are killing our children and destroying our country."
In Baghdad, some motorists honked their horns in the snarl of midday traffic when they heard about the hand-over. At times, celebratory gunfire punctuated the air.
Bremer executed the official hand-over at 10:26 a.m., presenting a blue binder of legal documents to Iraqi Chief Justice Mahdi Mahmood in a reception room with faux French furniture and little decor.
"You have said, and we agreed, that you are ready for sovereignty," Bremer told the assembled dignitaries. "I will leave Iraq confident in its future."
The ceremony lasted about 20 minutes and involved a mere handful of U.S. and Iraqi officials perched on chairs and sofas.
There was no sense of victory, no mood of euphoria. All seemed aware of the weakness of the new government. Many Iraqis have questioned the interim government's legitimacy, and insurgents have threatened to assassinate Allawi.
Interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer thanked Bremer and the U.S.-led coalition for restoring the country to Iraqi control.
"There is no way to turn back now," he declared proudly.
Bremer also gave Allawi a letter from President Bush asking that normal diplomatic relations be restored. In less than two hours, the face of the foreign occupation for more than a year had departed.
In Istanbul, Turkey, at a meeting with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, Bush hailed the hand-over. "After decades of brutal rule by a terror regime, the Iraqi people have their country back," Bush told a news conference. "This is a day of great hope for Iraqis, and a day that terrorist enemies hoped never to see."
Supporters and critics of U.S. policy in Iraq were pleased at word of the early transition. NATO allies congratulated Bush at the summit. Iran issued a statement saying it welcomed "any step toward the ending of the occupation."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he welcomed Iraq "back into the family of independent and sovereign nations." Annan spoke from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on his way to Africa.
Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan's senior advisor who helped select the interim government, said he hoped that the new Iraqi leaders could quickly establish control of the country and show that the presence of foreign troops would only be temporary.
"We hope that this is going to be a true beginning and those who are opposing occupation will now consider that opposing occupation is not necessary anymore and that both sides -- the government and these people -- will try and find a common ground to build Iraq," said Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister.
U.S. officials said they had accelerated the hand-over because everything was in place and Allawi had said it would strengthen his hand against insurgents.