Under a cloudless autumn sky in the heart of Saddam Hussein's home region, commanders of the U.S. Army's 42nd Infantry Division withdrew Tuesday from a sprawling 18-palace compound that has been a U.S. base since 2003.
They called the move a step toward reducing the visibility of U.S. troops and eventually withdrawing them altogether. In Baghdad, meanwhile, the military reported that a roadside bomb had killed an American soldier in central Iraq on Monday, bringing the number of U.S. troops killed in October to at least 93.
The scenic, hilly campus straddling the Tigris River, an enduring symbol of Hussein's rule and patronage, stands just a few miles from the village where the former dictator was born and the earthen pit where U.S. forces captured him last year. By Monday morning, the cold stone halls were eerily empty, a command center that once buzzed with computer screens and communications equipment reduced to some plywood tables and sleeping bags for the few remaining troops.
Known to the Americans as Forward Operating Base Danger, it will be formally turned over to the provincial government on Nov. 22 after three weeks of logistical preparations, said Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Taluto, commander of the 42nd Infantry, which is leaving Iraq this month. For now, an American artillery battalion is all that remains.
"Soon this place that was once for only an elite few will be a place for the Iraqi people," Taluto told a crowd of Iraqi politicians, tribal leaders and fellow generals gathered for a ceremony transferring control of the region north of Baghdad to the Army's 101st Airborne Division, which recently arrived for its second tour in Iraq and will be headquartered at a U.S. base a few miles outside Tikrit.
"Instead of representing how one man used Iraq's wealth, it will represent how Iraq's wealth can be used for its people," Taluto said.
Grandiose even by Hussein's gaudy standards -- its 134 buildings are adorned with inlaid brass and kitschy chandeliers, their walls covered in a veneer of marble -- the complex was built after the 1991 Persian Gulf War for Hussein's relatives and political patrons. One of its palaces has a waterfall running through it. A tributary of the Tigris, teeming with three-foot-long carp, flows underneath another.
The palace complex will be the 30th U.S. base turned over to Iraqis this year, said Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, a top U.S. spokesman in Iraq, who joined Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, commander of the multinational corps, at Tuesday's ceremony.
The purpose of such transfers is to reduce the footprint of the U.S. presence, both to discourage attacks and to prepare the way for eventual reduction of American forces, Taluto said. He gave no timetable for when such withdrawals might occur.
The United States has already begun scaling back operations in some places, Taluto said, and will continue to do so. "We used to go into Tikrit quite a bit. We don't go into Tikrit much anymore," he said. "Iraqi army units are getting more proficient. I think we should be making them do more and more. That means we're going to be doing less and less. And we're going to be less exposed."
Gov. Hamid Hamoud Qaisi, the top political leader in Salahuddin province, whose capital is Tikrit, said he intended to move his office into the palace complex temporarily, along with the provincial council and police department. Eventually, he said, the complex would be developed as a tourist attraction.
"It will be a fortune for all the people here," said Qaisi, who said 3,000 police officers and soldiers would initially be assigned to protect the compound. The province remains a hub for Hussein loyalists and voted overwhelmingly against Iraq's draft constitution in a referendum Oct. 15.
The 101st Airborne assumed command of the region, which includes the volatile Sunni Triangle, in a brief military ceremony on a green soccer field. Commanders of the outgoing and incoming divisions faced off and snapped salutes, swapping places in formation.
"It's great to have you back in the fight," Vines told the newly arrived division, which had been based in northern Iraq during and after the 2003 invasion. "You will find a vastly different country than you left a year ago. Iraqi security forces are increasingly capable of conducting security operations."
Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner II, commander of the 101st Airborne, said after the ceremony that most of the Iraqi army battalions in the region would need up to five months of training and experience before being able to assume control of certain sectors.
"Our primary duty would be to continue to train the Iraqi security forces so that they can provide domestic order and a secure environment," he said.