With furtive haste, former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer declared the end of the US occupation at a virtually secret ceremony and bolted for the door, enclosed in the same bubble of isolated arrogance in which he arrived. The surprise event was calculated to avoid disruption by insurgents, whose armed campaign rages unchecked. News stories mentioned the Iraqi flag snapping in the breeze, but there was nothing about lowering the US flag. Far from ending, the occupation has merely entered a new phase.

Bremer left behind an “interim” government: a US-run operation with an Iraqi face, 140,000 US troops, $15 billion of withheld reconstruction funds with which the new US ambassador can quietly rule from the Green Zone, and a basket of edicts.

The interim government represents a step toward Iraqi self-rule. But can a body with such limited power lead the transition to free and fair elections? Will it? Can it improve the welfare of Iraqis in need of the basics of life while it countenances an occupying force that continues to provoke a violent response?

The hundred-plus US-crafted edicts cover everything from Iraq’s legal code to its elections. Among other things, Bremer empowered an appointed electoral commission to “eliminate political parties or candidates” it disapproves of. (Juan Cole, a specialist on Shiite politics, likened the power of the commission to that of Iranian mullahs who routinely disqualify candidates they dislike.) Another decree bars political parties with militias, which would eliminate almost all traditional Iraqi parties. Another bans “hate speech” and advocacy of terrorism–a too-vague license to censor or disqualify candidates. Bremer also extended Order 17, granting US and other foreign civilian contractors immunity from Iraqi law, which outraged many Iraqis because it allows foreigners impunity even after the formal end of the occupation. Bremer bestowed on Iraqi cronies five-year appointments to such important government positions as head of intelligence and head of national security. He extended economic regulations that do everything from limiting taxation of foreign corporations to permitting full foreign ownership of Iraqi companies.

The handover, rather than being orchestrated to make the Bush Administration look as though it’s making “progress” in an election year or to embed a US presence in Iraq indefinitely, should instead be an attempt to restore decision-making to the Iraqi people and to begin the process of US disengagement.

The costs of war and occupation have been steep. As a new report by the Institute for Policy Studies tabulates, some 11,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed and 40,000 injured in the fighting as of June 16; meanwhile, crime in Iraq continues to increase, oil production has dropped and unemployment has soared to 60 percent. The price to the American people includes almost 900 troops killed and more than $125 billion already spent. This toll will continue to mount. While the Administration may claim that US troops must remain in place to safeguard the fledgling Iraqi government, there can be no real security as long as the occupation continues.

America can’t right all the wrongs it committed in this war–from invading a country without cause to rewriting its legal and economic code to suit US interests. But it could make a beginning by restoring full sovereignty, setting a date for withdrawal of US forces, disavowing plans to retain control of Iraq’s economy and reallocating the billions appropriated for reconstruction to international agencies and an independent Iraqi government. Only such a government–one not manipulated by the US embassy–should determine the country’s future. Until then, the “handover” of power will remain a sham.