As Iraqi schoolchildren sang their country's praise and the band marched in a row, the United States formally handed over military control of the heavily fortified Green Zone to Iraqi troops yesterday, a first step in the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
The Green Zone, a walled-off, 5.6-square-mile community in Baghdad's core, has come to symbolize for Iraqis the U.S. occupation of their country. Home to about 30,000 residents - including 14,000 U.S. and coalition forces - it is also the site of Saddam Hussein's opulent Republican Palace, captured by U.S. troops in April 2003 and, until last month, site of the U.S. Embassy.
Security of the Green Zone had been, until yesterday, the responsibility of the United States. But as part of the handover, and in terms outlined in the Status of Forces Agreement that details the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2011, Iraqis trained by U.S. troops now are in charge of security.
"This is a glorious and blessed day in Iraq's modern history," said Imad Jassim, commander of Iraq's Baghdad Brigade, the new military unit overseeing security in the Green Zone, at a ceremony yesterday morning. "We're developing Iraq and its future."
In speech broadcast on state television, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called it a "day of sovereignty" that should be immortalized as a national holiday.
"A year before this date, it was a dream to just think about withdrawing the foreign forces from Iraq," al-Maliki said. "The dream that nobody was allowed to think about has become a reality. We consider this a reason for all Iraqis to rejoice about."
In a private ceremony Wednesday, U.S. officials lowered the American flag at the Republican Palace, the largest of the presidential estates commissioned by Hussein. Yesterday, Iraqi officials raised their own flag, even though the sprawling, half-mile palace is empty now that U.S. personnel have moved into the new embassy. No decisions have been made for how the palace will be used, although both al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani are vying for control.
In addition to the Green Zone transfer, other changes are being instituted:
Iraq's military is now the lead agency, with the U.S. military conducting raids only alongside the Iraqi army. Arrest warrants will be issued by Iraqi judges, and the decision to detain will be made by Iraqi commanders.
Iraq now controls its own airspace, including responsibility for the Basra airport, which was transferred from British to Iraqi control yesterday.
About 15,000 Iraqi detainees in U.S. custody will be transferred over the coming months to Iraqi authorities for release or continued imprisonment. About 1,500 of the cases will be reviewed each month.
Private security contractors who provide protection for many U.S. officials and agencies are no longer granted immunity and could face criminal charges under Iraqi law.
The Green Zone has long been considered the safest place in Baghdad, with every car checked and every person searched and scanned before being granted entry. Although Iraqis are in charge, U.S. forces are still present. Even on this symbolic day, U.S. troops had set up a checkpoint on the road to stop cars and check identification cards.
"I think common sense will say [terrorists] will probably test the Green Zone," U.S. Army Col. Steven Ferrari, commander of the joint area support group, said of concerns that the area might become a target. "I guess time will tell."
Los Angeles Times reporters Ned Parker and Usama Redha, and special correspondents in Baghdad and Mosul, contributed to this article.