U.S. forces in Iraq have handed over control of Baghdad's Green Zone to the Iraqi government. Iraqi officials hailed the move, which was mandated under a new U.S. Iraq security arrangement that also calls for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by 2011.
An Iraqi army band played the country's national anthem, during the handover ceremony, as the Iraqi flag was raised over the presidential palace for the first time since a U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presided over the emotional ceremony. Addressing a crowd in the foyer of the Presidential Palace, Maliki described the historic moment.
He says that Iraqis should consider today the day of sovereignty and a new beginning, where Iraq regains every bit of its soil, in addition to its national will and sovereignty.
Mr. Maliki also put the event into historic perspective, arguing that this latest achievement puts a symbolic end to the old regime of Saddam Hussein.
The prime minister said everyone must ask himself what the return of the Presidential Palace means, in addition to other achievements like the end of U.N. sanctions and the end of military occupation, as well as the return of Iraq's sovereignty and public places. He concludes that it all means that Iraq has put an end to the old regime - of Saddam Hussein - and its bad policies.
U.S. forces handed over the Republican Palace at the stroke of midnight, to symbolize the beginning of the new military agreement between Iraq and the United States, which symbolically starts with the New Year and lasts until 2011.
Major General David Perkins, who attended the handover ceremony, also insisted that the moment marks a new beginning for Iraq:
"The transition of the Green Zone control from coalition forces to Iraqi forces is considered the first step in the implementation of this agreement. Here is Iraq taking another step toward the future, signaling to its citizens and the international community it is indeed a new day for sovereign Iraq," he said.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir Mohammed Jasim told the gathering that Iraq is capable of maintaining security in the nine-square-kilometer Green Zone, which has come under repeated insurgent attack during the past five years.
He says that Iraq has a special military unit assigned to take control of and protect the Green Zone, as well as to protect sensitive areas inside it. He says that the new unit is being called the Baghdad Brigade.
The new Baghdad Brigade will take orders from Prime Minister Maliki, although U.S. forces will continue to help supervise entry points into the zone.
Iraqi military spokesman Major General Qassim Atta told Iraqi television his men have all the latest cameras and equipment to control the Green Zone securely, and that U.S. forces would withdraw from it "gradually."