U.S. vacates Baghdad palace ahead of handover
In a run up to formal handover US officials withdrew on Wednesday from the vast Saddam Hussein-era palace they occupied in Baghdad in 2003, a sign of the historic change of power when their troops come under Iraqi authority at midnight.
Control of Baghdad's fortified green zone, a symbol of the US-led occupation of Iraq, was passed on to Iraqi hands today in one of many transfers of power taking place as the country regains its sovereignty almost six years after the invasion.
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 January 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, which looms over the Tigris River.