BAGHDAD – They called it the Green Zone because within its fortified blast walls lay a sanctuary for Americans, a place so secure that weapons could safely be left unloaded – or green, in military parlance.
Outside was the Red Zone, the rest of Iraq, where bombs exploded, bullets flew, ordinary Iraqis lived and endured and no American soldier or official was permitted to venture without a heavily armored convoy.
But the Green Zone now is American no longer. On Tuesday, Iraq took full control over the 4-square-mile enclave in the heart of Baghdad that, to many Iraqis, symbolized so much of what went wrong with the American occupation of Iraq.
At a brief ceremony held beside a bomb-damaged palace, the battalion of military police that had been advising Iraqis at Green Zone checkpoints cased their colors and prepared to redeploy to a base near Baghdad airport ahead of their departure this summer.
It marked a small first step in the impending withdrawal of nearly 50,000 U.S. troops by Sept. 1, and the end of one of the more extraordinary chapters in the still unfinished saga of America’s entanglement in Iraq.
“We are handing over to the Iraqis. … Job well done,” Brig. Gen. Joseph DiSalvo told the 250 or so soldiers standing in formation under a scorching sun. “Hooa,” they replied in unison.
The U.S. military will retain a small presence in the Green Zone, to guard the U.S. Embassy and train Iraqi security forces. But Iraqis will have sole authority over security and checkpoints, said the departing battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Marc Garcia.
How much, if anything, will change in the enclave that also provides sanctuary for most of Iraq’s new political elite is in question.
Today’s Green Zone already bears scant resemblance to the frenetic outpost of American politicking and partying that greeted Bush administration officials who poured into Baghdad after the 2003 invasion to run the country out of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s cavernous Republican Palace.
As the American presence expanded, so did the zone, and as the threats to Americans grew, so did the fortifications, isolating Iraq’s invaders from ordinary people and contributing, many critics say, to missteps and misunderstandings that provoked the insurgency and the descent into sectarian war.
Grass now grows through cracks in the abandoned parking lot opposite the palace, where Burger King and Pizza Hut once served the thousands of Americans working there. The palace itself has stood empty since the U.S. Embassy relocated to its own fortified compound in another corner of the zone over a year ago.
Iraqis have been manning the checkpoints leading into the area since the formal withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq’s cities last summer, albeit with American advisers on hand. Strident American warnings to Iraqis who didn’t understand Green Zone rules – “Deadly Force Authorized” – have disappeared, replaced by somewhat more polite exhortations in English and Arabic to switch off cell phones.
Substantive changes seem unlikely, however. Successive Iraqi leaders have not followed through on pledges to abolish the Green Zone and release the major thoroughfares ensnared within its walls, a source of immense inconvenience to motorists.
Instead, in perhaps the most significant indication that the Green Zone will continue in its present form, Iraqis are in the process of taking over the task of issuing badges that allow access – meaning that they will be able to determine who comes and goes. The American system subjected even top Iraqi officials to the humiliation of fingerprinting, retina scans and a range of detailed questions about their family backgrounds.
“We are very proud that instead of going to Americans to ask for a badge, we are going to our own countrymen,” said Salima Jabr, 38, one of several thousand Iraqis living in the zone, as she waited with her children for new badges.