A mortar attack in Iraq sent high-level dignitaries running for cover Tuesday as they prepared to watch the U.S. military return control of a massive palace complex in Tikrit to the Iraqi government.
The governor of Salahaddin province, Hamad Hamood Shetki, had just made remarks at an outdoor ceremony on the grounds of one of Saddam's main palaces, when the mortar attack occurred.
Governor Shetki said that the transfer of control over the presidential complex was a landmark event, highlighting the increased capability of the Iraqi forces to take control of security in their country.
The second speaker, U.S. Army Colonel Mark McKnight, began addressing Iraqi and U.S. dignitaries in attendance, including the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General George Casey, and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzhad.
Suddenly, a large mortar thumped out of its launcher about two kilometers away and whistled toward the assembled guests.
Panicked guests ran indoors to take shelter, while U.S. and Iraqi troops formed a protective cordon around the palace.
U.S. soldiers at the scene say the mortar fell about 70 meters away from the palace grounds, but failed to explode. The ceremony continued a short time later.
Despite the ongoing threat by insurgents, U.S. Ambassador Khalilzhad said that the United States believes Iraqis can and should quickly reassume control of more than 100 military facilities around Iraq that are now being used by U.S. forces.
"The goal is to turn over more and more responsibilities and facilities," he said. "We've already turned over more than a dozen military facilities to the Iraqis."
The U.S. military says 28 coalition bases have been turned over to Iraqi security forces this year. But the Saddam Hussein's old Tikrit palace complex is by far the most significant because of its size and symbolism to the Iraqi people.
Covering nearly 405 hectares of land, the complex sits high on a bluff, overlooking the Tigris River. It was built by Saddam Hussein shortly after the country's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
There are 136 buildings on the property, including 18 ornate palaces. Since the fall of Saddam in April 2003, the complex has served as headquarters for three divisions of the U.S. Army.
The Iraqi government says its finance ministry has control of the facility now. But provincial governor Hamad Hamood Shekti says there are long term plans and hopes to turn the complex into a theme park, where palaces built for one man can serve as luxury hotels for thousands of Iraqi guests and international tourists.