- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) — The United States inaugurated its largest embassy ever in the heart of the Green Zone on Monday, officially opening the fortress-like compound that was built as a testament to America’s commitment to Iraq.

Addressing an inauguration ceremony under tight security, Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the $700 million embassy was testimony to America’s long-term friendship with Iraq, where about 146,000 U.S. troops are deployed.

“From this embassy in the years to come, we look forward to building our partnership and contributing to the future,” Crocker said.

Attacks once again rocked Baghdad a day after a suicide bomber killed at least 38 people at a Shiite shrine just four miles north of the site of the new embassy. Four bombs exploded in different parts of Baghdad just before noon on Monday, killing four people and wounding 19.

During the ceremony at the new embassy, U.S. Marines raised the American flag over the building, which sits on a 104-acre site and has space for 1,000 employees. The adobe-colored buildings resemble a corporate campus surrounded by huge walls of reinforced concrete.

“It is from the embassy that you see before you that we will continue the tradition of friendship, cooperation and support begun by the many dedicated Americans who have worked in Iraq since 2003,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who served as the first American ambassador to Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, at the ceremony, held in the complex’s courtyard.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a longtime Washington ally, praised President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, who was executed two years ago.

“The building of this site would not be possible without the courageous decision by President Bush to liberate Iraq,” said Talabani, a Kurd. “This building is not only a compound for the embassy but a symbol of the deep friendship between the two peoples of Iraq and America.”

U.S. diplomats and military officials moved into the embassy on Dec. 31 after vacating Saddam’s Republican Palace, which they occupied when they captured Baghdad in April 2003. The palace will now seat the Iraqi government and the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who did not attend the Monday’s ceremony because he was traveling in Iran.

Crocker said that, since 2003 invasion, “perhaps no single week has been more important than this past week. On Dec. 31 we left the republican palace.”

For nearly six years, the grandiose and gaudy palace, with its gold-plated bathroom fixtures and enormous chandeliers, served as both headquarters for occupying forces and the hub for the Green Zone — the walled-off swath of central Baghdad that was formally turned over to the Iraqi government on New Year’s Day.

The handover came on the same day that a security agreement between Iraq and the United States went into effect. It replaced a U.N. mandate that allowed the U.S. and other foreign troops to operate in Iraq.

Under the new agreement, U.S. troops will no longer conduct unilateral operations and will act only in concert with Iraqi forces. They must also leave major Iraqi cities by June and the entire country by the end of 2011. Another accord mapped out the bilateral relations.

“Iraq has now assumed the lead for all security operations and our bilateral relationship going forward will be governed” by the two agreements, Crocker said. “Iraq is in a new era and so is the Iraqi-U.S. relationship.”

Though violence has plummeted around Iraq in the past year, with attacks dropping from an average 180 a day to just 10, horrific bombings still plague the capital. Many recent attacks have targeted pilgrims during ceremonies commemorating the death of a much revered Shiite saint.

On Monday, a roadside bomb killed two police officers and wounded five in eastern Baghdad. Another killed a man driving in central Baghdad while two roadside bombs wounded more than 10 people — including seven Shiites preparing to head to the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, where the ceremonies will reach their pinnacle on Wednesday.

Iraqi officials said Sunday’s suicide bomber, who killed at least 38 people outside the shrine of Imam Mousa al-Kazim in Baghdad, was a man disguised as a woman. Initial reports said the attacker was a woman concealing a bomb under her black cloak. At least 17 of the dead were Iranian pilgrims.

In response to that attack, Iraqi authorities banned female pilgrims from entering the district for ceremonies on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims are expected to visit Karbala and other shrines around Iraq during Ashura, which on Wednesday will mark the anniversary of the 7th-century death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein.

He was killed in a battle on the plains of Karbala near the Euphrates River. The battle, part of the dispute over the leadership of a young Muslim nation following Muhammad’s death in 632, enshrined Islam’s split into Sunni and Shiite branches.

Iraqi security forces have deployed thousands of troops in Baghdad, Karbala and on roads linking the two cities to safeguard the ceremonies. Attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq, Sunni insurgents and even a Shiite cult have killed hundreds of people in recent years.

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