ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) - President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the two determined architects of the war against Saddam Hussein, celebrated the early transfer of political power to Iraqis Monday. "The Iraqi people have their country back," Bush said.
In the 15 months since Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, more than 800 U.S. soldiers and more than 50 British soldiers have been killed, and a surge of violence preceded the handover that was scheduled for Wednesday.
"They've all given their lives in the cause of trying to give a better and different future to the people of Iraq," Blair said.
Though Bush and Blair referred to the transfer as a handover of "full sovereignty," some 138,000 American troops remain in Iraq and the United States will have the main role in Iraqi security.
Blair called the accelerated transfer a landmark event, a day in which "democracy replaces dictatorship, in which freedom replaces repression, and in which all the people of Iraq can look forward to the possibility and the hope of an Iraq that genuinely guarantees a future for people from whatever part of Iraq they come."
Bush said: "We have kept our word" to deliver freedom and a new government to the Iraqi people.
"We pledged to end a dangerous regime, to free the oppressed and to restore sovereignty," he said.
The two leaders spoke a few hours after the U.S.-led coalition handed off power to the interim Iraqi government.
Bush and Blair acknowledged the ongoing attacks by rebels that have killed more people since major combat ended than during the war itself.
"Their brutal attacks have not prevented Iraqi sovereignty and they will not prevent Iraqi democracy," Bush said.
Bush referred to insurgents' threats - some of them already carried out - to behead their enemies, including Americans. An American Marine, three Turks and a Pakistani are now being held hostage by captors who have threatened to decapitate them.
The military situation is "tough, there's no doubt about it," Bush said, calling al-Qaida-linked militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a "brutal cold-blooded killer."
But, he said: "They can't whip our militaries."
"What they can do is get on your TV screens, stand in front of your TV cameras, and cut somebody's head off in order to try to cause us to cringe and retreat. That's their strongest weapon," Bush said.
"Prime Minister (Iyad) Allawi has said many times he will not cower in the face of such brutal murder, and neither will we," Bush said.
"The Iraqi people need to hear, loud and clear, they'll have our friendship and our support, no matter how tough it gets," Bush promised.
"Fifteen months after the liberation of Iraq and two days ahead of schedule, the world witnessed the arrival of a full sovereign and free Iraq," the president said.
The two leaders had defied much of world opinion, including longtime allies, in the march to war. "I'm not sure we've persuaded all of our critics," Blair said, standing next to Bush on the sidelines of a NATO summit here. In a boost for Blair and Bush, NATO leaders, including France and Germany, set aside a year's worth of differences and agreed to help train Iraqi security forces.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush learned during the NATO summit that the handover had been completed. He was passed a note written by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, that said: "Mr. President, Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from Bremer at 10:26 a.m. Iraq time - Condi."
Bush scribbled "Let freedom reign!" on the note and passed it back to Rice, McClellan said.
Bush marked the transfer with a whispered comment and a handshake with Blair, gathered with world leaders around a table at the summit. Stealing a glance at his watch, Bush put his hand over his mouth to guard his remarks, leaned toward Blair and then put out his hand for a shake. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a row behind the president, beamed.
Bush offered Allawi a green light to impose martial law if necessary and take other hard-line measures to deal with terrorists. "He may take tough security measures to deal with Zarqawi, but he may have to. Zarqawi is the guy who beheads people on TV. He's the person that orders suiciders to kill women and children.
"Prime Minister Allawi is the head of a sovereign government," Bush said.
Bush administration officials expressed optimism that the early transfer of power would strengthen the new government's hand to deal with rampant violence and the threat of terrorism.
The early transfer had been under discussion between Allawi and U.S. officials for at least a week, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks.
In the end, Allawi told American officials he was ready to take the helm, concluding Sunday that it would give him more clout in dealing with insurgents, the official said. Bush was informed of the plan Sunday.
Last Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition transferred the final 11 of the 26 government ministries to full Iraqi control, meaning Iraqis were already handling the day-to-day operations of the interim administration.
Coalition administrator Paul Bremer went on a series of farewell visits to areas throughout the country over the past few days.