Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


New Year's Day Marks Milestone In Iraq


It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. New Years Day marks a milestone in Iraq. The United States is formally turned over control of the Green Zone, that fortified area, that headquarters area at the center of Baghdad is now officially under the control of Iraqis, and that is suggestive of a wider reality that also takes effects today. The countdown has begun for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. They now have three years, and all these occasions were marked by a ceremony in the Green Zone. And NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was there. What did you see?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARO: Well, it started with a parade and Iraqi officials, American officials, coming to a checkpoint here in the heavily fortified Green Zone. And there were a number of different speeches, both sides pledging their undying loyalty to one another.


There wasn't an actual paper signing, or the keys to the Green Zone, if you will, weren't handed over. It was very brief, and then it ended rather suddenly. I think the more important ceremony actually happened last night when, at the Republican Palace, which has been the place where the U.S. embassy has been located these many years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the American flag was brought down from its pole, it was folded up, and raised over the new embassy, which is a purpose-built building still inside the Green Zone. And that old building, which was a palace of Saddam Hussein, was given back to the Iraqis.

INSKEEP: Once all this symbolism is over, will the U.S. military's role actually change in any way in Iraq?

GARCIA-NAVARO: Absolutely. Fundamentally. What we are seeing is the Americans will now have to take, basically, their orders from the Iraqis. They are here at the pleasure of the Iraqi government, and it is not just a symbolic thing.

The Iraqis can effectively tell them how to do things, when to do them. They have to - in order to conduct raids, they have to get the authority of the Iraqi government to do that. In order to arrest people they have to get a warrant from an Iraqi judge. We'll be unable to detain people without a warrant. They can only hold them for 24 hours before handing them over to Iraqi authorities.

There are a number of different things that are happening, that will be happening, over the next few weeks and months as the United States really changes the way, fundamentally, it does business in Iraq.


INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. And Lourdes, I'd like to know as you've spoken with U.S. military officials, do they seem entirely comfortable that their Iraqi partners will be able to handle this extra responsibility?

GARCIA-NAVARO: That's a very important question. And I have to say, of course, when they speak publicly, they say that they have every confidence that the Iraqis will be able to maintain security and do a good job.

Privately, of course, they say that many Iraqi units, Army, police, are still in training phases, and the Americans are still greatly needed here. There is a concern, especially in a place like the Green Zone, that certain elements might try and test the security here. Perhaps try and breach it, because the Iraqis are now in control and perhaps the perception may be that they won't be doing such a good job.

So people here are actually in a high state of alert. There's a lot more security on the streets. And the Americans haven't gone away, I mean, they're still here. It's just that they are now sort of supporting the Iraqis, if you will. The Iraqis are the ones that are checking the badges at the checkpoints. The Iraqis are the ones that answer your questions. The Iraqis are the ones doing the patrols, but the Americans are still with them. Perhaps, not in great - as great numbers as before, but they're still here.

INSKEEP: You know, I can remember American troops being a little bit dubious a couple of years ago about whether they could share any details of their operations with certain Iraqi officials because they weren't sure the Iraqis were really on their side.

Now, you're talking about warrants being granted before people can be arrested, permission being sought from Iraqi officials before military operations take place. Are Americans sure that they have partners that really do have, as you put it earlier, undying love for each other?

GARCIA-NAVARO: Well, I think that a lot of that mistrust is still there. Ten days ago, in the Green Zone there was a high alert because there was a fear that car bombs had entered the Green Zone that perhaps had been smuggled in by Iraqi Army members.

So that, I think, speaks to the fact that, perhaps, that level of trust isn't quite where it should be yet. That said, the Americans are legally obliged now to, basically, follow the lead of the Iraqis. This ceremony today marks a wider reality in which Iraq has become a sovereign nation in a way that it really wasn't just 24 hours ago.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is NPR's Baghdad correspondent. Lourdes, always good to talk to you.

GARCIA-NAVARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.