On Bremer's last day, he springs a surprise

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — L. Paul Bremer's last day as U.S. administrator of Iraq started as it often did: He arrived at his office inside the heavily guarded Green Zone at 6 a.m. yesterday, wearing a dark-blue suit and his trademark tan U.S. Army combat boots.

A few hours later, Bremer was climbing the steps of a gray Air Force transport plane, waving goodbye — two days earlier than the world expected — to a country he all but ruled for 14 months.

Bremer began discussing the possibility of an early transfer 10 days ago with interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, but the two didn't agreed until Sunday to go ahead with the sovereignty transfer earlier than planned, said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bremer broke the surprise news to his staff at his 8 a.m. meeting with senior advisers from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). He told them the transfer of sovereignty would happen in two hours. Only six of the 25 present had any idea beforehand that the handover had been moved ahead, the U.S. official said.

"He told them we were ahead of schedule and that at the request of the prime minister, we were going to transfer sovereignty this morning," a senior coalition official said yesterday.

"He talked about the accomplishments of the coalition over the past year. ... He said he felt very strongly about this new government, that Iraq was in very capable hands," he said.

All staff members stood, made short speeches and applauded. Some took pictures, the official said.

Bremer then formally dissolved the CPA — the U.S.-led authority that had administered Iraq — and said he was leaving the country. After the handover ceremony, Bremer said that despite the insurgency, a series of car bombs and kidnappings countrywide, he was leaving Iraq "confident in its future."

"Anybody who has any doubts about whether Iraq is a better place today than it was 14 months ago, did not see the mass graves of Hillah ... or see any of the torture chambers, or rape rooms throughout this country," he said. "Iraq is a much better place, absolutely."

Two hours later, Bremer was at Baghdad International Airport.

His last moments in Iraq were spent in a meeting with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in the country, who is to leave soon. Sanchez met Bremer inside the airport to say goodbye, officials said.

Accompanied by spokesman Dan Senor, bodyguards and close members of his staff, Bremer walked across the tarmac to a U.S. Air Force C-130 military plane.

Iraq's deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, walked with him.

The two shook hands, and Bremer waved to a gathered crowd and left Iraq for home.

Many Iraqis were happy to see him go.

"Bremer was just a little toy that George Bush sent to Iraq," said Mohammed Jassim, 46, a Baghdad security guard. "The only thing he managed to do was disband the army, increase the scale of the insurgency and create more bloodshed and violence."

Material from Reuters is included in this report.