BAGHDAD — 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 Thursday, a first major 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 also is 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 Thursday, 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 Thursday morning.
In speech broadcast on state television, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called it a "day of sovereignty" that should be immortalized as a national holiday.
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. Thursday, 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 on how the palace will be used.
The Green Zone long has 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 to 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."