(AFP) 31 December 2009
BAGHDAD - The United States Thursday handed over security control of the Green Zone, symbol of the American occupation, to Iraq as a UN mandate for foreign troops ran out and bilateral military accords took effect. In another step towards sovereignty, Iraq was Thursday also handed control of Basra airport by British forces, who have been using the facility as their main military base in southern Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. The formal transfer of control of the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, during an emotional ceremony at the former palace of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, was hailed by Iraqi government and military officials.
“A year before it was just a dream to think about foreign troops withdrawing from Iraq but today that dream has become a reality,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in an impassioned speech in a hall at the palace. “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,” Maliki said as the Iraqi flag was hoisted at the sandstone palace entrance. “The palace is the sign of Iraqi sovereignty and it is a message to all Iraqis that our sovereignty has returned.” 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 14.5 square kilometre (5.6 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 expiry of the UN mandate put in place on October 16, 2003 allowing foreign troops to operate on Iraqi soil, means Iraq takes greater control of its own security and marks 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 handover of Basra airport was also hailed by Iraqi officials.
“This is a great and important day during which Basra airport control tower and the entire airport was turned over by the British to us,” Basra provincial governor Mohammed Masbah al-Waeli said at ceremony at the airport.
Iraqi transport ministry representative Sabih al-Sheybani said the airport would still be used by foreign troops.
“The American and the British forces will use the airport but under Iraqi supervision,” he said.
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 part of its airspace and Baghdad airport although the adjacent US military base, Camp Victory, will remain a key headquarters for the Americans. 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.