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Tuesday, June 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Note breaks news to Bush at summit

By Maura Reynolds
Los Angeles Times

Condoleezza Rice's note to president, with his retort added.
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ISTANBUL, Turkey — President Bush got confirmation on a sheet of paper, folded in half and passed to him discreetly by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as the president sat at a round table with other NATO leaders yesterday.

The note was written with a black ballpoint pen by his national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and referred to a letter delivered to Iraqi leaders minutes before. "Mr. President," she wrote. "Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from Bremer at 10:26 a.m. Iraq time. Condi."

Bush took out a black felt-tip pen and scribbled back: "Let Freedom Reign!"

The president checked his watch and leaned over and whispered the news to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. As other alliance leaders continued to listen to the session's opening remarks, the two shared a smile and shook hands.

It was likely a moment of deep satisfaction for Bush, who has been criticized by many European and Muslim countries for his decision to invade and occupy Iraq. The transfer "marks a proud moral achievement for members of our coalition," Bush said later at a news conference with Blair. "We pledged to end a dangerous regime, to free the oppressed and to restore sovereignty. We have kept our word."

Bush said the transfer was accelerated to increase security in Iraq, including foiling plans for attacks tomorrow, the planned transfer day. But it also caught NATO leaders off guard and altered the mood at the Istanbul summit.

Allies who had opposed the war and demanded a rapid transfer of sovereignty scrambled to adapt their positions and rhetoric. And instead of being on the defensive, Bush could concentrate on what he considered significant progress.

"Iraq today still has many challenges to overcome, we recognize that," Bush said at the news conference. "But it is a world away from the tormented, exhausted and isolated country we found last year."

Bush denounced the insurgency, especially militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom Bush described as "the guy who beheads people on TV."

"Look, they [insurgents] can't whip our militaries," Bush added. "What they can do is get on your TV screens and stand in front of your TV cameras and cut somebody's head off. ... That's their strongest weapon. And we just — and as Prime Minister Allawi has said publicly many times, he will not cower in the face of such brutal murder. And neither will we."

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