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Iraqi troops take control of Green Zone

As Iraqi schoolchildren sang their country’s praise and the band marched, the United States formally handed over military control of the heavily fortified Green Zone to Iraqi troops Thursday, a first major step in the American 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 people -- including 14,000 American and coalition forces -- it is also the site of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace, captured by American troops in April 2003 and, until a move last month, site of the U.S. Embassy.

Green Zone security had been the responsibility of Americans. But under the Status of Forces Agreement that details the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011, a new U.S.-trained military unit of Iraqis -- known as the Baghdad Brigade -- has taken charge.

“This is a glorious and blessed day in Iraq’s modern history,” brigade commander Imad Jassim said at a ceremony Thursday morning. “We’re developing Iraq and its future.”

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said in a speech on state television that the “day of sovereignty” 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,” 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.”

U.S. officials lowered the American flag at the Republican Palace -- the largest of the presidential estates commissioned by Hussein -- in a private ceremony Wednesday, and on Thursday Iraqi officials raised their own nation’s flag. For the moment the sprawling complex stands empty: Maliki and President Jalal Talabani are vying for control, so its future use remains undetermined.

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 the Basra airport, which transferred from British to Iraqi control Thursday.

* About 15,000 prisoners will be transferred from U.S. to Iraqi control, with cases coming under review for release or continued detention at a pace of about 1,500 a month.

* Private security contractors for many U.S. officials and agencies no longer have immunity from criminal charges under Iraqi law.

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The Green Zone has long been considered the safest place in Baghdad, with every car checked and every person searched and scanned before entry. And though Iraqis are in charge, American troops remain. Even on this symbolic day, Americans set up a checkpoint 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 may become a target. “I guess time will tell.”

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kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Ned Parker and Usama Redha and special correspondents in Baghdad and Mosul contributed to this report.


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