BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 -- The walls of the majestic Republican Palace in Baghdad's Green Zone have been stripped bare. The vaults that secured American cash and classified documents are gone, and the cement blast walls that protected the front entrance were taken down this week. The U.S. military dining facility inside what was once the American Embassy served its last meal New Year's Eve.
"This is the end of the world as we know it," said Sgt. 1st Class Patrick McDonald, 47, who co-authored a guide to historic sites in the Green Zone. "It's not like everyone is shredding documents and fleeing Saigon. But we are stepping away from a building."
Saddam Hussein had the palace compound's main building decorated with giant busts of himself to demonstrate his hold over Iraq. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the palace came to symbolize the American role in the country, first as the headquarters of the U.S. occupation authority and later the U.S. Embassy. American civilians and troops held "salsa night" dances around the pool behind the palace before retiring to trailers sheathed in sandbags.
When the clock struck midnight on Wednesday, the U.S. returned the palace to the Iraqi government and relinquished formal control over the Green Zone, a heavily fortified six-square-mile enclave on the Tigris River where key U.S. and Iraqi bureaucracies are situated.
The handover is a sign of the shrinking footprint and influence of the United States in a country where it has lost thousands of lives and spent billions of dollars. For many Iraqis, the handover represents a significant step forward in their gradual reassertion of dominion over their own affairs.
"On January 1, we are going to control this," Adnan Karim, 22, an Iraqi soldier manning a checkpoint at one of the entrances to the Green Zone, said, beaming. "The U.S. will be here just as observers. It's a matter of pride."