BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. officials withdrew on Wednesday from the vast Saddam Hussein-era palace they have occupied in Baghdad since 2003, a sign of the historic change of power when their troops come under Iraqi authority at midnight.
The U.S. force in Iraq, now more than 140,000 strong, has operated since 2003 under a U.N. Security Council resolution which expires at midnight on New Year’s Eve. From Jan. 1, U.S. troops will operate with authority granted by the Iraqi government under a pact agreed by Washington and Baghdad.
The pact — viewed by both countries as a milestone in restoring Iraqi sovereignty — requires U.S. troops to leave in three years, revokes their power to hold Iraqis without charge and subjects contractors and off-duty troops to Iraqi law.
Iraq also reached a deal with Washington’s main ally Britain on Tuesday giving its 4,100 troops until the end of July to depart. Small contingents from Australia, El Salvador, Romania, Estonia and the NATO alliance will also leave in 2009.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are planning a ceremony for the morning of New Year’s Day to formally hand over control of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified central sector of the capital that houses Western diplomats and Iraqi government offices.
In recent weeks U.S. diplomats have gradually moved into a newly-built compound, the world’s largest U.S. embassy, leaving behind a sprawling yellow marble palace of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein which looms over the Tigris River.
“The palace will be in the possession of the Iraqi government from January 1, 2009,” U.S. embassy spokeswoman Susan Ziadeh said of the ornate building, where diplomats worked beneath garish frescoes depicting Saddam’s arsenal of missiles.
U.S. officials ruled Iraq directly from the palace for more than a year after toppling Saddam in 2003, and it has remained a symbol of what many Iraqis consider a military occupation even as their nascent elected government has gained confidence.
Iraq’s security spokesman for Baghdad, Major-General Qassim Moussawi, said Iraqi forces would take immediate responsibility for patrolling and guarding the Green Zone, with U.S. troops acting in support.
After years of extreme sectarian violence, Iraq has become far less bloody over the past year, although militants still launch bomb attacks frequently targeting civilians.
A car bomb killed four people and wounded 45 on Wednesday at a crowded market in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, mainly populated by the minority Yazidi sect, police said. But only five U.S. soldiers have died as a result of hostile action in December, the lowest monthly total since the war began.
The Iraq Body Count website, which monitors media reports of violent deaths, says 2008 was the least deadly year of a war which killed at least 90,000 Iraqi civilians. An average of about 25 civilians were still killed per day in 2008, mostly in the first half of the year.
The government still requires U.S. military support to fight al Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups, mainly in the north, as well as remnants of Shi’ite militia in the south.
Under the bilateral pact which takes effect from midnight, U.S. combat forces will withdraw from Iraqi towns and cities by mid-2009 and all troops must leave by the end of 2011. They will remain under U.S. command but will require authorisation from a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee to carry out military operations and can arrest people only with warrants from Iraqi judges.
Some 15,000 prisoners held at vast U.S. military detention camps must either be charged with crimes under Iraqi law or set free, although the procedure for doing so may take many months.
Contractors working for U.S. troops will be subject to Iraqi criminal law, and U.S. soldiers can be tried in Iraqi courts in narrow circumstances for serious crimes committed off duty.