- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

BAGHDAD | The U.S. formally transferred control of the Green Zone to Iraqi authorities Thursday in a pair of ceremonies that also handed back Saddam Hussein’s former palace. Iraq’s prime minister said he will propose making Jan. 1 a holiday marking the restoration of sovereignty.

Under the new security agreement between Washington and Baghdad to replace a U.N. mandate for foreign troops in Iraq, the Iraqi government also now has control of American troops’ actions and of the country’s airspace.

The moves came amid a dramatic fall in violence over the past year. However, insurgents still stage daily attacks and could try to expand the fight now that U.S. troops cannot take unilateral action.

Many of the changes inaugurated on New Year’s Day won’t bring immediately visible results. The Green Zone, the country’s government and military command center, remains ringed by concrete blast walls and off-limits to most Iraqis. U.S. troops still man its checkpoints, although now as trainers rather than leaders.

But the Americans have moved out of the Republican Palace, the sprawling former headquarters of Saddam’s regime that they took over shortly after the 2003 invasion. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formally took control of the building Thursday and exulted over the security pact under which U.S. troops are to leave the country by 2012.

“A year ago, the mere thought of forces withdrawing from Iraq was considered a dream,” Mr. al-Maliki told reporters afterward. “The dream that no one had the right to think about became true.”

He called for making Jan. 1 a national holiday called “Sovereignty Day.” Iraq already officially observes New Year’s Day as a holiday.

Also on Thursday, British troops turned over to Iraqi officials the airport in Basra, the country’s second-largest city. Britain says it will withdraw its approximately 4,000 soldiers in Iraq by May 31.

“Iraq is taking another step toward the future, signaling to its citizens and the international community that it is indeed a new day for sovereign Iraq,” U.S. Army Col. Steven Ferrari said at a separate ceremony handing over control of the Green Zone.

The Green Zone was the most potent symbol of the U.S. invasion and occupation.

The 4-square-mile area, which nestles into the start of an oxbow bend of the Tigris River, formally is called the International Zone. Sarcastically, it’s called “The Bubble” because the foreigners who live and work there often have little contact with the shabby and violent city and no contact with Iraqis who live there.

But the sense of security is only relative. The zone was a favorite target for insurgents firing rockets and mortars. In 2007, the attacks were so heavy that the U.S. Embassy ordered its workers to wear flak jackets and helmets when outside.

Asked whether insurgents could resume attacks now that the area is under Iraqi control, Col. Ferrari said, “Common sense says they’ll probably test the Green Zone.”

The walls and the seemingly endless series of checkpoints inside have been worrisomely porous. A suicide bomber attacked the parliament’s dining hall in 2007, killing one person. Suicide vests wired with explosives have been found on the grounds.

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