The United States on Thursday handed over security control of the Green Zone, symbol of the American-led occupation, to Iraq as a UN mandate for foreign troops ran out and bilateral military accords took effect.
Iraqi government and military officials hailed the return of the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad to Iraq’s control in an emotional ceremony at the former palace of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
“It is our right to consider this day the day of sovereignty and the beginning of the process of retrieving every inch of our nation’s soil,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in an impassioned speech in a palace hall.
“The palace is the sign of Iraqi sovereignty and it is a message to all Iraqis that our sovereignty has returned,” Maliki said as the Iraqi flag was hoisted at the palace entrance.
Maliki also declared the day a national holiday.
“I ask the Council of Ministers and the Presidency Council to announce this day as a national holiday.”
Under the terms of an agreement signed with Washington in November, US troops officially decamped from the nine square kilometre (3.5-square-mile) Green Zone located on the banks of the Tigris in central Baghdad.
However, US troops will continue to play an advisory role to the Iraqi military and the new huge US embassy complex lies within the fortified zone although many other buildings already have been handed back to the Iraqis.
The end of the UN mandate put in place on October 16, 2003, seven months after the invasion by US-led troops to topple Saddam, means Iraq takes greater control of its own security and a further step towards full sovereignty.
Soldiers from the Baghdad Brigade, who take orders from Maliki, took over when the UN mandate expired at midnight although American forces will help man checkpoints and play an advisory role to the Iraqi military.
“The American withdrawal from the Green Zone will be gradual,” Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad, Major General Qassim Atta, told AFP.
“US checkpoint equipment remains in place and the checkpoints will be coordinated with the American forces but the zone will be run by the Baghdad Brigade.”
The embattled country also took another step towards full sovereignty as British forces handed over control of Basra airport, its main military base in southern Iraq, to Iraqi officials in line with agreements signed this week.
“This is a great and important day during which Basra airport control tower and all the airport was turned over by the British to us,” Basra province governor Mohammed Masbah al-Waeli said at ceremony at the airport.
Britain’s troops had already withdrawn from Basra — a key oil and financial hub and Iraq’s third largest city — in September last year and handed over security control of Basra province some three months later.
The US military has also handed back to the Iraqis control of Baghdad airport although the adjacent US military base, Camp Victory, will remain a key headquarters for the US military.
However foreign troops will still remain on Iraqi soil for some time.
The United States, which has 146,000 soldiers in Iraq, signed in November a bilateral agreement with Baghdad which allows its combat forces to remain in the country until the end of 2011.
Britain and Australia — which had the second and third largest contingents respectively — have signed their own separate bilateral agreements with Iraq on Tuesday and will stay on until the end of July.