The U.S. military in Iraq falls under Iraqi authority on Thursday for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, a milestone in the war-weary country's path to restoring sovereignty.
The U.S. force in Iraq, now more than 140,000 strong, has operated since 2003 under a U.N. Security Council resolution which expired at midnight on New Year's Eve.
Starting Jan. 1, troops will operate under the authority of the Iraqi government, according to a pact signed earlier this year by Washington and Baghdad.
The pact gives U.S. troops three years to leave Iraq, revokes their power to detain Iraqis without an Iraqi warrant, and subjects contractors and, in some cases, U.S. troops to Iraqi law.
The new, tough terms of the U.S. presence here were secured by an increasingly confident Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, emboldened by a maturing democracy, military victories against Shiite militias and progress against al-Qaeda militants.
U.S. and Iraqi officials will hold a ceremony on Thursday morning to formally hand over control of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified Baghdad compound from which the United States governed Iraq directly for more than a year after the invasion.
"The role of the coalition forces (in the Green Zone) will be secondary, centered on training Baghdad brigade troops to use equipment to detect explosives and advising Iraqi forces," Qassim Moussawi, spokesman of Iraqi forces in Baghdad, said.
Operating with local troops
Iraqi forces take over control of the heart of U.S. power in Iraq as U.S. forces across the country prepare to operate in new concert with local troops. While U.S. soldiers remain under U.S. command, U.S. military operations are to be authorized starting Thursday by a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee.
In Baghdad, Iraq plans also to end the lucrative contracts the United States has awarded to private security contractors to guard the Green Zone, which Moussawi said would be terminated in September 2009. From then on, Iraqis alone would secure the symbolic seat of Iraq's political power.
Under the bilateral pact which took effect at midnight, U.S. combat forces are supposed to withdraw from Iraqi towns and cities by mid-2009 and all troops must leave by the end of 2011.
But troops may stay on longer in a support role for Iraqi forces, which have grown exponentially since 2003. While they are seen as far more skilled as they were, even senior Iraqi officials say they still need U.S. help to root out militants.
Some 15,000 prisoners held at vast U.S. military detention camps must now be charged with crimes under Iraqi law or, according to the security pact, gradually let go.
Britain hands over Basra airport
British forces on Thursday handed over control of Basra airport, its main military base in southern Iraq, to Iraqi officials in accordance with an agreement signed with Baghdad this week.
Britain's troops had already withdrawn from the city in September last year and handed over security control of Basra province some three months later.
The province had been under the control of British troops since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Oil-rich Basra is Iraq's third largest city and considered the country's financial hub due to crude production and its harbor.
Under the deal signed on Tuesday between the Iraqi government and Britain, 4,100 British soldiers will complete their mission in May, before a complete withdrawal from the country in late July 2009.