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US hands over Green Zone security to Iraq

Photo courtesy AFP.

British forces hand Basra airport to Iraqis
British forces on Thursday handed over control of Basra airport, its main military base in southern Iraq, to Iraqi officials in accordance with an agreement signed with Baghdad this week. Iraqi officials and British military officers welcomed the move at a handover ceremony held at the airport. "This is a great and important day on which the Basra airport control tower and the entire airport was turned over by the British to us," said Basra provincial governor Mohammed Masbah al-Waeli. "Basra is an important airport in the region and it is ready to receive the biggest and most sophisticated planes in the world," he added. Iraqi transport ministry representative Sabih al-Sheybani said the airport would still be used by foreign troops. "The American and the British forces will use the airport but under Iraqi supervision," he said. British military officer General Andy Salmon also hailed the handover. "Now when a civilian enters the airport he sees Iraqi faces," the general said. Oil-rich Basra is Iraq's third largest city and considered the country's financial hub due to crude production and its harbour. Britain's troops had already withdrawn from the city in September last year and handed over security control of Basra province some three months later. The province had been under the control of British troops since the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. Under the deal signed on Tuesday between the Iraqi government and Britain, 4,100 British soldiers will complete their mission by June, before a withdrawal from the country in late July 2009.
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Jan 1, 2009
The United States handed over security control of the Green Zone, a potent symbol of the American occupation, to Iraq on Thursday as a UN mandate for foreign troops ran out and bilateral military accords took effect.

In another step towards full sovereignty, Iraq was also handed control of Basra airport by British forces, who have been using the facility as their main base in southern Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

The formal transfer of control of the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, during an emotional ceremony at the former palace of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, was hailed by Iraqi government and military officials.

"A year before it was just a dream to think about foreign troops withdrawing from Iraq but today that dream has become a reality," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in an impassioned speech in one of halls of the sprawling palace.

"It is our right to consider this day the day of sovereignty and the beginning of the process of retrieving every inch of our nation's soil," Maliki said as the Iraqi flag was hoisted at the sandstone palace entrance.

"The palace is the sign of Iraqi sovereignty and it is a message to all Iraqis that our sovereignty has returned."

Maliki also declared the day a national holiday.

"I ask the Council of Ministers and the Presidency Council to announce this day as a national holiday."

Under the terms of an agreement signed in November, the US has officially decamped from the 14.5 square kilometre (5.6 square mile) Green Zone located on the west bank of the Tigris in central Baghdad.

However, US troops will continue to play an advisory role to the Iraqi military and the huge new US embassy complex lies within the fortified zone although many other buildings have already been handed back to the Iraqis.

The expiry of the UN mandate put in place on October 16, 2003 allowing foreign troops to operate on Iraqi soil, means Iraq takes greater control of its own security and marks a further step towards full sovereignty.

Saddam's former palace served as a US embassy American military headquarters after being taken over by US forces in April 2003.

Surrounded by kilometres of barbed wire, four-metre high concrete walls and multiple armed checkpoints, the area came to symbolise for many Iraqis the unwanted American occupation. It came under frequent attack by Shiite and Sunni insurgents.

Soldiers from the Baghdad Brigade, who take orders from Maliki, have now taken over although American forces will help man checkpoints and play an advisory role.

"The American withdrawal from the Green Zone will be gradual," Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad, Major General Qassim Atta, told AFP.

"US checkpoint equipment remains in place and the checkpoints will be coordinated with the American forces but the zone will be run by the Baghdad Brigade."

The handover of Basra airport was also hailed by Iraqi officials.

"This is a great and important day during which Basra airport control tower and the entire airport was turned over by the British to us," Basra provincial governor Mohammed Masbah al-Waeli said in a ceremony at the airport.

Iraqi transport ministry representative Sabih al-Sheybani said the airport would still be used by foreign troops.

"The American and the British forces will use the airport but under Iraqi supervision," he said.

British troops had already withdrawn from the city of Basra in September last year and handed over security control for the key oil-producing province some three months later.

The US military has also handed back to the Iraqis control of part of its airspace and Baghdad airport, although the adjacent US military base, Camp Victory, will remain a key headquarters for the Americans.

The foreign troops will stay on Iraqi soil for some time.

Washington, which has 146,000 soldiers in Iraq, signed a bilateral agreement with Baghdad in November which allows its combat forces to remain in the country until the end of 2011.

Britain and Australia -- which have the second and third largest contingents respectively -- have signed their own separate bilateral agreements with Iraq and will stay on until the end of July.

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Key dates in Iraq's political transition
Baghdad (AFP) Jan 1, 2009
With the dawn of the new year, the United Nations mandate on the presence of foreign troops in Iraq ran out and the embattled country took another step towards full sovereignty, more than five years after it was invaded by US-led forces.







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