WASHINGTON - The surprise two-day head start on the scheduled transfer of Iraqi sovereignty, timed and conducted without fanfare to stymie feared insurgent disruption, was also a commentary on how eager the Bush administration was to shed its image as an occupying power.
The sudden and dramatic move, bypassing any showy ceremony, enabled President Bush to tell the NATO summit in Istanbul "we have kept our word" and "the Iraqi people have their country back." But much depends on whether the new interim Iraqi regime is up to the task of governing.
That prospect, in turn, depends to a very large degree on establishing stability, the task that will remain significantly in the hands of the more than 138,000 American forces still in the country. And this fact makes the new Iraqi sovereignty a conspicuously limited one, no matter what the American president says.
The situation is entering into a critical phase, militarily and politically. If the limited Iraqi sovereignty persuades the various insurgent forces on the ground to back off and give the new regime a chance, Mr. Bush will be able to claim a breakthrough in what up to now has been a calamitous gamble.
But expectations are shaky, with raging ethnic and religious factionalism just as likely to sabotage the efforts to cobble together a working coalition attempting to run Iraq, leading up to scheduled free elections by January.
At the very least, the achievement of limited Iraqi sovereignty should enhance the belated effort of the Bush administration to engage the United Nations in the enterprise, and particularly those European powers that earlier washed their hands of the whole business in opposition to the Iraq invasion. The willingness of NATO allies to assume a training role for Iraq forces penetrated an otherwise cloudy reception for the American president on his latest overseas jaunt, with street protests marring his presence from Ireland to Istanbul.
The transfer of power in Baghdad may, however, offer Mr. Bush a first step toward the exit strategy his political agents fervently want before the November election. At the same time, failure to achieve civil stability in Iraq, and heightened street violence, could put the president in an even deeper hole politically at home.
One immediate political effect of the handover of sovereignty was a shifting of gears somewhat by prospective Democratic nominee John Kerry. In a speech in Baltimore on Monday, he focused more on Mr. Bush's past actions that now require the president to repair relations with uncooperative nations in his quest for international assistance in Iraq.
"The world is far more tattered and volatile than it was when this president came into office," Mr. Kerry said. "And I believe one of the reasons is the ill-advised way he went to Iraq. The question should appropriately be asked by all Americans: Why do we have a president who four years into his term is in a state of repair or disrepair? We deserve a president who knows how to get it right from the beginning. ... It may well be that it takes a new president to be able to re-establish the relationships that we've had in the past."
Mr. Kerry also said "it is absolutely stunning" that only $400 million of the $18 billion Congress has voted for Iraqi reconstruction, which he opposed in what he has said was a protest vote, has been spent so far on security.
The remark spurred a Bush campaign spokesman to observe that "the Iraqi people made history today, and so did John Kerry with his unprecedented pessimism about today's progress. Kerry revealed his cynicism when he said not enough of the money he voted against is being spent."
In a real sense, what happens in Iraq from this point until November can hold the key to the outcome of the election. No matter how much Mr. Kerry harks back to what he called "the ill conceived way [President Bush] went to Iraq," what probably will be decisive on Election Day is whether the turmoil there has been turned by then into at least the beginnings of a stable Iraq.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.