Friday, January 9, 2009

Iraqis Now In Charge of Green Zone and Saddam’s Palace

During my time in Iraq, I spent a lot of time in the Green Zone as well as inside Saddam's former palace that became our first embassy. For any soldier who served there, the new changes are something else. I always hoped I would get another tour in Baghdad so I could re-live some of the atmosphere that became so life-altering. (I took the above photo of Saddam's home during my tour in 2004.)

My team, the C.O.B.R.A. Team, lived in a small villa that was across the street from our general’s house. Our little villa, which we nicknamed the “cobra pit”, was directly on the Tigris River across from the Sheraton Hotel and just up the river from the palace. From the roof of our headquarters building, we could look out over Baghdad and take in some of the majesty of that ancient city.

Watching the swift Tigris River, listening to the call to prayer from the nearby mosque, and hearing the sounds of gunfire or mortars in the distance was an electrifying experience. It was especially so for an old soldier like me who was experiencing his last war.

Now that Iraqis have taken over the security for the Green Zone, the safety issues in that compound will be enormous. America has also left Saddam’s old palace to the Iraqis and we now have our own new embassy.

With the new status of forces agreement, there is no doubt that our military role in Iraq will continue to decline. Truthfully, if they don’t want us there, it’s their country and they can make that call.

I am proud that my fellow warriors and I played a part in liberating the nation of Iraq. We made many friends over there regardless of the self-serving factions that don’t care for us.

Shiites should remember that Saddam Hussein treated them like dirt, murdered them, didn’t allow them to celebrate their holidays, and would have continued to suppress them if he and his sons had retained power. I don’t suppose a little gratitude from the new government would be out of place, but I won’t hold my breath.

The future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqis. Let us hope they do not squander the chance we gave them to live their lives in freedom and prosperity.

* * * *

Iraq Takes Over Green Zone Security

January 01, 2009
Agence France-Presse

BAGHDAD - The United States today handed over security control of the Green Zone, symbol of the American-led occupation, to Iraq as a UN mandate for foreign troops ran out and bilateral military accords took effect.

Iraqi government and military officials hailed the return of the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad to Iraq's control in an emotional ceremony at the former palace of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

"It is our right to consider this day the day of sovereignty and the beginning of the process of retrieving every inch of our nation's soil," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in an impassioned speech in a palace hall.

"The palace is the sign of Iraqi sovereignty and it is a message to all Iraqis that our sovereignty has returned," Maliki said as the Iraqi flag was hoisted at the palace entrance.

Maliki also declared the day a national holiday.

"I ask the Council of Ministers and the Presidency Council to announce this day as a national holiday."

Under the terms of an agreement signed with Washington in November, U.S. troops officially decamped from the nine square kilometre (3.5-square-mile) Green Zone located on the banks of the Tigris in central Baghdad.

However, U.S. troops will continue to play an advisory role to the Iraqi military and the new huge U.S. embassy complex lies within the fortified zone although many other buildings already have been handed back to the Iraqis.

The end of the UN mandate put in place on October 16, 2003, seven months after the invasion by U.S.-led troops to topple Saddam, means Iraq takes greater control of its own security and a further step towards full sovereignty.

Soldiers from the Baghdad Brigade, who take orders from Maliki, took over when the UN mandate expired at midnight although American forces will help man checkpoints and play an advisory role to the Iraqi military.

"The American withdrawal from the Green Zone will be gradual," Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad, Major General Qassim Atta, told AFP.

"U.S. checkpoint equipment remains in place and the checkpoints will be coordinated with the American forces but the zone will be run by the Baghdad Brigade."

The embattled country also took another step towards full sovereignty as British forces handed over control of Basra airport, its main military base in southern Iraq, to Iraqi officials in line with agreements signed this week.

"This is a great and important day during which Basra airport control tower and all the airport was turned over by the British to us," Basra province governor Mohammed Masbah al-Waeli said at ceremony at the airport.

Britain's troops had already withdrawn from Basra -- a key oil and financial hub and Iraq's third largest city -- in September last year and handed over security control of Basra province some three months later.

The U.S. military has also handed back to the Iraqis control of Baghdad airport although the adjacent U.S. military base, Camp Victory, will remain a key headquarters for the U.S. military.

However foreign troops will still remain on Iraqi soil for some time.
The United States, which has 146,000 soldiers in Iraq, signed in November a bilateral agreement with Baghdad which allows its combat forces to remain in the country until the end of 2011.

Britain and Australia -- which had the second and third largest contingents respectively -- have signed their own separate bilateral agreements with Iraq on Tuesday and will stay on until the end of July.

* * * *

Most people don't believe me when I say that I miss Baghdad. I guess only someone who's been there would understand what it's like to live each day on the edge. There is nothing like the rush of adrenaline to keep your senses alive.

I've written a book about my tour in Baghdad with the C.O.B.R.A. Team. It is titled, "My Last War - A Vietnam Veteran's Tour in Iraq". It should be available in two to four months. I'll keep you posted on the status and you can always check out the team's website at

On behalf of all of my fellow Iraqi war veterans, thanks for your support. It was mighty different during and after Vietnam.

Charles M. Grist

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