Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Bush, joined by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld behind him and Secretary of State Colin Powell at right, listens as French President Jacques Chirac speaks at the NATO summit in Istanbul on Monday.
updated 6/28/2004 12:26:54 PM ET 2004-06-28T16:26:54

President Bush celebrated the early transfer of political power to Iraqis on Monday, declaring that “the Iraqi people have their country back.”

Bush’s statement came 15 months after he ordered the invasion against Saddam Hussein and his country. Bush stood with Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key coalition partner, at joint press conference during a NATO summit here.

“We have kept our word” to deliver freedom and a new government to the Iraqi people, Bush said.

Bush acknowledged the ongoing attacks that have killed more people since major combat ended than during the war itself. More than 800 American soldiers have died in Iraq.

“Their brutal attacks have not prevented Iraqi sovereignty and they will not prevent Iraqi democracy,” Bush said.

The president spoke a few hours after the U.S.-led coalition handed off power to the interim Iraqi government, two days ahead of schedule.

“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.

Bush earlier marked the transfer with a whispered comment and a handshake with Blair, gathered with world leaders around a table at a NATO summit. Stealing a glance at his watch to make sure the transfer had occurred, 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  Rumsfeld, a row behind the president, beamed.

Blair's comments
“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 at the news conference with Bush, noting the death of another British soldier on Monday.

The insurgents’ goal, he said, have a “very clear and simple objective” — “to try and prevent Iraq becoming a symbol of hope.”

Blair and Bush had stood firm against the opposition of most of the rest of the world. Their comments about the handover were somewhat muted, against the backdrop of many months of bloodshed.

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.

TV 'strongest weapon' for extremists
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.

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