By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 2, 2009
BAGHDAD, Jan. 1 -- The handover of the Green Zone from U.S. to Iraqi control Thursday presented such a powerful symbol of the waning American presence in Iraq that it would have been nearly impossible for both sides not to mark it with a formal ceremony.
They did, but the ceremony wasn't much. A podium was set up in the middle of a dirty street. Five small balloons and some tinsel decorated a seating area. The American ambassador and the top commander of U.S. troops didn't show up. Neither did Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki instead attended an unannounced event where he watched what might have been one of the most stirring signs of the new Iraq: the raising of the Iraqi flag over what just a day earlier had been the U.S. Embassy. The decision to keep reporters away from this ceremony hinted at the unease and uncertainty both sides feel about the transition.
Among Iraqis, there is no national consensus over whether the U.S-Iraqi security agreement signed last month that mandated the handover went far enough in asserting Iraqi sovereignty. For the Americans, there is doubt over whether the Iraqis are prepared to take control, as well as anxiety over the U.S. legacy in the country.
"It's a good feeling," said Col. Steve Ferrari, commander of the Joint Area Support Group, which is in charge of the six-square-mile Green Zone, as he reflected on the handover. "But it's also a sad feeling."
Iraqi and American officials announced Thursday that U.S. soldiers would continue to help maintain security in the area for at least the next 90 days despite the formal transfer of control. Then they will reevaluate the arrangement.
"We are not losing our jobs -- they are just changing," Ferrari said, adding that U.S. troops will follow Iraqi orders. "If they tell us to go, we will go. If they tell us to stay, we will stay."
U.S. troops, who once controlled all the external checkpoints leading into the Green Zone, will work alongside Iraqi troops who are now supposed to be in charge of security, officials from both countries said. Ferrari said the Americans would focus mainly on providing support and training the Iraqis.
But officials acknowledged that precisely how the relationship will work remains uncertain. And though some officials suggested the Americans would be under the control of the Iraqis, others said that was unlikely for now.
"The Americans will supervise us," said Brig. Gen. Emad al-Zuhairi, commander of the Baghdad Brigade, the Iraqi military unit in charge of the Green Zone. "We hope this is just the first step."
Security checkpoints were noticeably different Thursday than they were just a few months ago. Iraqi flags have popped up at nearly every checkpoint, and American troops seemed to be taking a supporting role. At one checkpoint where U.S. troops had been strict in their enforcement of security protocols, Iraqi soldiers smiled and conducted only cursory pat-downs. No one objected when visitors simply walked around a body-scan machine instead of passing through it.
Maliki declared Thursday a national holiday during the gathering at the ornate Republican Palace, the former U.S. Embassy that reverted to Iraqi control.
"This palace is the symbol of Iraqi sovereignty and its return is a message directed to a Iraqi people that Iraq's sovereignty has returned," Maliki said, according to his press office, which released a transcript of the speech and 12 photos of the closed ceremony.
U.S. military officials ferried dozens of Iraqi and Western reporters to the formal transition ceremony, where Ferrari and Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jassim gave speeches trumpeting the symbolism of the handover. The No. 2 commander of U.S troops in Iraq attended but did not speak.
A giant banner said in Arabic: "Receiving the security of the Green Zone is a major step toward full independence and the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country."
When the ceremony was over, workers took down the banner, revealing a sign underneath. It was a set of rules, created by the U.S. military, on how weapons should be handled in the Green Zone.
Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.