Thursday, January 01, 2009

Iraq Takes Control Of Green Zone From US

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.

Two Iraqi soldiers and three policemen were killed in attacks Thursday. In the northern city of Kirkuk, Iraqi and U.S. troops killed three suspected al-Qaida gunmen during a raid, police said.

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 formerly 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," 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.

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