The United States formally transferred the Republican Palace back to the Iraqi government today, a concrete symbol of the continuing improvement in the country.
The transfer came about as the status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq took effect.
The agreement replaces the United Nations mandate under which the coalition went into Iraq and has conducted operations there since. Under the agreement, Iraqi forces are now in the lead with U.S. forces in a supporting role or in overwatch.
Officials said that American troops are still on duty at some of the checkpoints in Green Zone, but they are there to train their Iraqi counterparts rather than with operational control.
"When you come up to a checkpoint, the Iraqis will check your identification. They will make the decision if you come in or go out, " said Army Maj. Gen. Dave Perkins, U.S. spokesman in Iraq. As a colonel, Perkins led the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division that conducted the Thunder Run in April 2003 that first entered Baghdad.
"We will continue to be there to provide some technical capacity, to provide some mentoring, but you will see less and less American forces and more and more Iraqi forces – and they will have the majority of the responsibility for making those key decisions which determine the security of the capital," Perkins said.
The American effort has shifted down the river to the embassy. The new embassy – the largest U.S. embassy in the world – is open for business. Officials at the embassy are working with the Iraqis in detailing how other portions of the SOFA agreement will play out.
Iraqi security forces have made tremendous gains over the past 18 months, officials in Baghdad said. The U.S. surge of five brigades into Iraq announced in January 2006 brought security and stability to the country. Behind this, the Iraqi army and police were able to develop and train. The agreement recognizes this progress and now Iraqi forces have primary responsibility for security in the country.
The agreement also calls for all American combat troops to be out of cities and villages by June. Planning is underway for this move already, U.S. officials in Baghdad said. The agreement says all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
The transfer of responsibility for security of the Green Zone is the most visible outcome of the agreement. The palace on the banks of the Tigris River was the seat of the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein. U.S. servicemembers called the building the "three-headed palace" because of three huge busts of Saddam that decorated it.
Soon after American soldiers rolled into Baghdad, the palace became the headquarters of the coalition forces in the country. It also served as the U.S. embassy in the country.
While spared any direct attack in the "shock and awe" campaign in March 2003, the building still had no glass in the windows and American soldiers bunked in some of the rooms decorated with pictures of missiles and other portrayals of Saddam's might.
The palace became the hub of the Coalition Provisional Authority – the coalition group that ruled Iraq before the first government. U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer transferred sovereignty back to the Iraqis in a ceremony at the palace in June 2004.
The grounds behind the palace was filled with hundreds of trailers that coalition officials lived in as they worked with Iraqi governmental departments.
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
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