BAGHDAD // The United States opened its new embassy building in Baghdad today, a step symbolising its transition from occupying power to an ally of a sovereign Iraqi government. In recent weeks US diplomats have gradually moved into the US$592 million (Dh2.1 billion) newly-built compound, the world's largest US embassy building, leaving behind a sprawling palace they had inhabited since toppling the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003.
US officials ruled Iraq directly from the same palace for more than a year after ousting Saddam. The opening of the new embassy is in line with a change of power that was effected on New Year's Day, when US forces in Iraq officially came under an Iraqi mandate. "This new embassy is significant in that it reflects a more normal situation," the US embassy spokeswoman Susan Ziadeh said. "This is a broadening of the relationship because the situation is more secure and we are able to transition to what we call a more normal embassy."
The embassy has 1,200 employees, including diplomats, servicemen and staff from 14 federal agencies, Ms Ziadeh said, adding that "its scale reflects the importance of the US-Iraq bilateral relationship". US forces on New Year's Day handed over responsibility to Iraqi troops for the Green Zone, a fortified compound in the heart of Baghdad off limits to most Iraqis, who have widely viewed it as a symbol of foreign military occupation. The new embassy is located in the zone.
The US force in Iraq, now more than 140,000 strong, had previously operated under a UN Security Council resolution. US troops now work under the authority granted by the Iraqi government under a pact agreed by Washington and Baghdad. That pact - viewed by both countries as a milestone in restoring Iraqi sovereignty - requires US troops to leave in three years, revokes their power to hold Iraqis without charge and subjects contractors and off-duty troops to Iraqi law.
Ms Ziadeh said the mission of the new embassy would start to resemble those in other embassies around the world. "Our work is looking at a whole range of issues on trade, on energy ... transportation sectors, rule of law," she said. *Reuters