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U.S. Hands Control Of Green Zone To Iraqi Forces

GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Guy Raz, sitting in for your regular hosts. First this hour, to Iraq. Iraqi leaders celebrated today as a new security agreement came into effect. Now, American forces are operating under the authority of Iraq's government. Separately, three Iraqi policemen were killed in the city of Mosul, underlying the security challenges that remain. In Baghdad, the U.S. formally handed over control of the Green Zone. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro attended that ceremony and filed this report.

(Soundbite of marching band)

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dressed in navy blue and red uniforms and holding bagpipes and drums, an Iraqi army marching band opened today's ceremony. Members of Iraq's government and U.S. military officials sat under a tent where food plates were set out on low tables. Baghdad's Green Zone was the symbolic heart of America's occupation of Iraq. Set up after the 2003 invasion, it became home to 14,000 members of the U.S. military, the U.S. embassy and foreign contractors, as well as successive Iraqi governments. The 5.6 square mile area also became a de facto no-go zone for regular Iraqis. Checkpoints manned by the U.S. military allowed only those with proper badges to come inside. Iraq's defense minister, Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jassim, told today's assembled guests that the Green Zone handover is more than a simple transfer of authority; it is a restoration of Iraq's sovereignty.

Mr. ABDUL QADIR MUHAMMED JASSIM (Defense Minister, Iraq): (Through translator) We are building a strong security force to protect this country and bring it back to health. Iraq will be safe, stable and finally protected by its own people and their strong weapons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jassim promised to open up large portions of the Green Zone to the Iraqi public. Last night, at the former U.S. embassy, based in Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, the U.S. flag was lowered. Colonel Steve Ferrari, who oversees American security in the Green Zone, was there.

Colonel STEVE FERRARI (Commander, Joint Area Support Group Baghdad): It was a touching event because my headquarter has been there for many years, so picking up and moving and actually seeing it close now is a good feeling, but it's also a sad feeling because that was where we operated from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The U.S. embassy has relocated to another spot in the Green Zone. Certain areas, like the new U.S. embassy complex, will remain under American security control. Americans will also still jointly man checkpoints, as they continue to train their Iraqi counterparts. But there are concerns that Iraq's fledgling security forces, which are still riven with divisive sectarian and political loyalties, will compromise security here. Colonel Ferrari says it's likely that this area will come under attack, again, soon.

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Col. FERRARI: I think common sense will say that they'll probably test the Green Zone. But again, we don't know that for sure. So, we'll see what happens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Green Zone handover is the most visible of the many changes that have come into effect today with the implementation of the security pact. U.S. forces will now legally operate under a government of Iraq mandate. They will, for example, have to get Iraqi authority to launch raids and get warrants to arrest people. Iraq is also taking control of its airspace, and under this agreement, U.S. forces will eventually leave this country. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says he now wants January 1st to become a national holiday, which he dubbed Sovereignty Day. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.