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Last Updated: Monday, 28 June, 2004, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
How Iraq handover 'slipped out'
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent, in Istanbul

This wasn't quite the way Tony Blair and George Bush intended the big news from the Nato summit to be announced.

Speaking after a breakfast meeting with Mr Blair in Istanbul, Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, revealed that the handover of sovereignty to his country was being brought forward to coincide with the meeting.

Tony Blair, left, George Bush, right
Blair and Bush: Iraqis run Iraq
Tony Blair did not flinch, his smile appeared to freeze for a millisecond before he went on to announce that he really couldn't say too much - presumably because Mr Zebari had just stolen his thunder and blasted away days, if not weeks, of careful planning.

In formal dark suits and ties, the two men stood against a background of equally formal, dark wood panelling in Istanbul's Ritz Carlton hotel to tell the assembled press how the situation in Iraq was about to change dramatically with the handover of power.

The choreography had been precisely worked out, US administrator Paul Bremer would do the official handover in Baghdad - thus underpinning the impression that power really has transferred to the interim government - then President Bush and the prime minister would make their announcements later in the day as very much the junior partners.

But even the best laid plans of world leaders don't always run smoothly. The outside temperature in Istanbul was already rising, and when Mr Zebari "let slip" his announcement - to quote one British official - it soared an extra couple of degrees in the conference centre.

Fenced off

As it was, the moment power was later handed over in Iraq was marked in Istanbul by President Bush checking his watch and shaking hands with the British prime minister, his closest war ally, as they took part in a Nato session.

The handover of power, it turns out, is what the summit was always intended to be about.

Both Tony Blair and President Bush dearly hope this massively symbolic event will start to turn the tide on their involvement in Iraq, which has caused them both severe political difficulties at home.

Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari and Tony Blair
Iraq's Zebari: Power transferred
Not only was the move designed to pre-empt further attacks by insurgents in the run up to handover, but it is designed to show just how serious Britain and the US are in transferring power to Baghdad.

But the threat of violence still hangs over all these proceedings and was amply demonstrated in Istanbul which has been, to all intents and purposes, fenced off for the occasion.

Unprecedented numbers of armed police are patrolling the city and miles of dark blue fencing have been erected along the roads around the conference centre, effectively caging pedestrians to the pavements.


But Istanbul is a large, rambling city of the sort which provides security forces with real headaches.

And this is a summit taking place against a background of escalating violence in Iraq as militants attempt to undermine the interim government.

Military officials meet at the Nato headquarters
Nato had been split on Iraq

Tony Blair and George Bush will be hoping the Istanbul gathering will finally draw a new line for them in this crisis.

From here on in, they will argue, Iraq is in control of its own destiny. They are there to help and provide, where possible, the means to tackle those insurgents.

To that end, they want to be able to point to a new international agreement on the training of Iraqi security forces by countries including France and Germany as a concrete signal that previous divisions have been put behind them.

Key message

There are still significant differences between them, however, on how that training should take place, either inside or outside Iraq.

But no one at this gathering wants to emphasis those differences.

Speaking shortly after the handover announcement, the prime minister's official spokesman declared: "We have to change our mind set. It is no longer about what is important for Nato or what is important for the UK or US, it is what is important for the Iraqi people.

"The prime minister thinks it is important that the Iraqi people for the first time can see Iraqi leaders representing them."

And for Tony Blair and George Bush, that is the single most important message they want to come out loud and clear from this summit.

Profile: Nato
28 May 04  |  Country profiles
Bush praise for key ally Turkey
27 Jun 04  |  Europe
Istanbul gears up for summit
27 Jun 04  |  Europe

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