BAGHDAD — The United States on Thursday handed the Iraqi government formal control of the Green Zone, a seat of power in the country and symbol of American influence for the past five years, but officials announced that U.S. soldiers would continue to help maintain security in the area for at least the next 90 days.
“The Americans will supervise us,” said Brig. Gen. Emad al-Zuhairi, commander of the Baghdad Brigade, the Iraqi military unit in charge of the Green Zone. “We hope this is just the first step.”
Under the new security agreement between Washington and Baghdad to replace a U.N. mandate for foreign troops in Iraq, the Iraqi government also now has control of American troops’ actions and of the country’s airspace.
U.S. troops, who once controlled all the external checkpoints leading into the Green Zone, will stay and work alongside Iraqi troops who are now supposed to be in charge of security, officials from both countries said. They acknowledged that it remains unclear precisely how the relationship will work.
Col. Steve Ferrari, commander of the Joint Area Support Group, which is in charge of the 6-square-mile Green Zone, said American troops would be training Iraqis at the checkpoints and providing support.
“We are not losing our jobs — they are just changing,” Ferrari said, adding that the entire relationship would be re-evaluated at the end of three months to decide what the Iraqis want them to do. “If they tell us to go, we will go. If they tell us to stay, we will stay.”
Asked whether insurgents could resume attacks now that the area is under Iraqi control, Ferrari said, “Common sense says they’ll probably test the Green Zone.”
The Green Zone handover is one of the requirements of a security accord between the Iraqi and American governments signed last month that is supposed to reduce the role of U.S. troops in Iraq.
One of the most powerful symbols of the transition was the return of the ornate Republican Palace, the headquarters of the U.S. government in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s former palace, to Iraqi control. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attended a ceremony in which the Iraqi flag was hoisted over the palace.
He called for making Jan. 1 a national holiday called “Sovereignty Day.” Iraq already officially observes New Year’s Day as a holiday.
In the next couple of months, the Iraqi High Tribunal plans to open a museum in the zone detailing the brutality of Hussein’s regime. It will include a replica of the hole-in-the-ground hideout where Hussein was captured in 2004, two years before he was executed, tribunal head Arif Abdul-Razzak Al-Shaheen had told the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
Also on Thursday, British troops turned over to Iraqi officials the airport in Basra, the country’s second-largest city. Britain says it will withdraw its approximately 4,000 soldiers in Iraq by May 31.