BAGHDAD — For the more than 12 years since the U.S.-led invasion, Baghdad’s Green Zone has been out of bounds for the vast majority of Iraqis.
The 3.9-square-mile enclave here contains government buildings, luxurious mansions housing the country’s political elite and foreign embassies — including the largest and most expensive U.S. mission in the world. Hulking blast walls and security checkpoints keep the public out, with the meandering Tigris River forming a natural boundary on two sides of the zone.
“It’s our capital, but it’s like entering a foreign country,” one Iraqi complained as we navigated the security checks to enter earlier this year, a feat that was possible only with a hard-to-obtain pass. It’s a common grievance.
But on Monday morning, Iraqis lined up to enter, after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the opening of the Green Zone the previous evening, ushering in the first vehicles himself.
Still, those without passes can navigate only a single road through — in one direction. That thoroughfare also has been newly flanked with blast walls, meaning that the Green Zone’s buildings are still sealed off behind concrete.
On the way in, security guards examined cars with sniffer dogs and wandlike bomb detector units — which have been proven to be worthless but are still widely used in the Iraqi capital. The checkpoints were decked out with miniature Iraqi flags for the occasion.
There were long lines as Iraqis took the chance to see the area that had been sealed off to them for more than a decade. The experience, though, was a little underwhelming for some.
Ali Fadl, 32, waited more than an hour to get through security checks Sunday night.
“All those searches just to drive down two kilometers of road,” he grumbled, adding that the area that once housed Saddam Hussein’s palaces did not quite live up to his memories.
“It was cleaner and better before,” he said. “I thought I’d see members of parliament on the street, but all I found was concrete and blast walls.”
Still, the new road may do something to ease traffic around Baghdad, and security guards at checkpoints said Iraqis would soon be able to stop at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, a saucerlike structure that commemorates the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Moussa Ali, 25, who works at a tourism company, said he had expected to find the entire Green Zone open.
“When we got there, it was just one street,” he said. “It shows they are still afraid of us, the people.”