By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 1, 2009
BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 -- The walls of the majestic Republican Palace in Baghdad's Green Zone have been stripped bare. The vaults that secured American cash and classified documents are gone, and the cement blast walls that protected the front entrance were taken down this week. The U.S. military dining facility inside what was once the American Embassy served its last meal New Year's Eve.
"This is the end of the world as we know it," said Sgt. 1st Class Patrick McDonald, 47, who co-authored a guide to historic sites in the Green Zone. "It's not like everyone is shredding documents and fleeing Saigon. But we are stepping away from a building."
Saddam Hussein had the palace compound's main building decorated with giant busts of himself to demonstrate his hold over Iraq. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the palace came to symbolize the American role in the country, first as the headquarters of the U.S. occupation authority and later the U.S. Embassy. American civilians and troops held "salsa night" dances around the pool behind the palace before retiring to trailers sheathed in sandbags.
When the clock struck midnight on Wednesday, the U.S. returned the palace to the Iraqi government and relinquished formal control over the Green Zone, a heavily fortified six-square-mile enclave on the Tigris River where key U.S. and Iraqi bureaucracies are situated.
The handover is a sign of the shrinking footprint and influence of the United States in a country where it has lost thousands of lives and spent billions of dollars. For many Iraqis, the handover represents a significant step forward in their gradual reassertion of dominion over their own affairs.
"On January 1, we are going to control this," Adnan Karim, 22, an Iraqi soldier manning a checkpoint at one of the entrances to the Green Zone, said, beaming. "The U.S. will be here just as observers. It's a matter of pride."
In recent days, Iraqi flags have sprung up along the Green Zone's mazelike entry points. More Iraqis have been allowed to drive inside, clogging roads that were once dominated by U.S. military vehicles and armored sport-utility vehicles. Americans have been cautioned not to venture outside U.S. compounds alone, especially after dark.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and his staff recently finished moving into a newly built embassy compound, made up of pale-orange buildings with small, bulletproof windows. The compound is expected to cost at least $736 million, and its construction was marred by delays and budget overruns.
Iraqi and U.S. officials, who recently appointed a committee to oversee the Green Zone transition, have provided few details about the handover. The long-term plan, which could change if security deteriorates, is to maintain a handful of heavily secured American compounds but gradually open other areas to traffic.
The Green Zone transfer is mandated by a security deal between the United States and Iraq signed last month. The "status of forces" agreement, which goes into effect Thursday, will replace the U.N. resolution that has given the U.S. government enormous power since the invasion. The agreement says Iraq may request help from the U.S. military "for limited and temporary support" in providing security for the Green Zone, but it leaves the details to be worked out by committee members who were recently appointed.
Speaking privately, U.S. officials said they will try to make their presence in the Green Zone less conspicuous in coming days. But they will remain in charge of issuing badges that grant varying levels of access into the area. They said they will not immediately dismantle a vast security apparatus that includes hundreds of Peruvian and Ugandan guards, body-scanning machines, bomb-sniffing dogs and surveillance cameras.
Iraqi and American officials have said extremists may exploit the transition period to undermine the United States and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
U.S. officials in the Green Zone spent the final days of December on high alert amid reports that extremists were plotting to carry out a headline-grabbing multi-pronged attack on Christmas or New Year's Day targeting Americans.
Acting on U.S.-gathered intelligence, Iraqi officials detained an Iraqi army captain and an employee of Iraq's Interior Ministry, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters. An Iraqi judge set the detainees free after determining that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute them.
U.S. officials have been able to detain indefinitely Iraqis suspected of wrongdoing, but they lose that right Thursday when the new security agreement goes into effect. "The reality is that there are people who are very concerned," one official said. Referring to the alleged plot and the measures it triggered, he added: "That really set the reality for us -- cold-water reality."
On Monday night, the Green Zone was hit by a mortar shell or rocket, the U.S. military said.
Americans are not the only ones feeling anxious about the transition. Several Iraqis said that while they welcome the symbolism of the handover, they are afraid of the possible repercussions.
"It's too early to pull out U.S. troops from the area," Kasim Ali Judor, 26, a guard at the Italian Embassy, said on a chilly recent afternoon. "I don't think our government has the capacity to secure the area without Americans."
Haider Mahmoud, 28, another guard employed at a nearby compound, echoed that view.
"We prefer American forces in charge of the Green Zone," he said, as a group of colleagues started talking about the imminent transfer. "Nothing is more beautiful than rules. I respect the Iraqi security forces, but they can't compete with the American forces."
As rumors of a contracting Green Zone have circulated among residents in recent months, some have begun referring to parts of the district as "pink" and "amber" zones. The portion of the Green Zone that includes the parliament building, the al-Rasheed Hotel and a small number of U.S. military offices, may soon be transferred to exclusive Iraqi control, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Several Iraqi lawmakers and parliament employees have for years complained about being subjected to stiff security measures on their way to work. Officials must have their fingerprints and irises scanned by U.S. troops before they receive a badge.
On the way in, many were subjected daily to multiple pat-downs by Peruvian guards and had to step aside while bomb-sniffing dogs inspected their briefcases. The security measures were not unfounded. In 2007, a bomb exploded in the parliament's cafeteria.
Independent lawmaker Hussein Shkur said he thinks the transition will be largely cosmetic, at least in the short run.
"In my opinion, the Americans will not carry out a complete, genuine handover," he said. "It is only natural that the Americans will still be in control, and not from behind the scenes as some may think, but directly and openly."
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Zaid Sabah and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.