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U.S. to Vacate Baghdad Palaces

Troops will leave the former seats of power and the airport within a year. The move aims to foster the view of greater Iraqi self-governance.

March 04, 2004|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Seeking to lower the American profile in Iraq, a top U.S. military commander said Wednesday that he would remove U.S. forces from the palaces of toppled leader Saddam Hussein and had ordered the military to hand over Baghdad's international airport within a year.

The move to leave the palaces is designed to counter the view that Hussein's government has simply been replaced as Iraq's overlords by American soldiers occupying the same opulent seats of power.

The U.S.-led occupation is scheduled to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis at the end of June, and U.S.-led forces are trying to encourage the impression that Iraqis are increasingly governing and policing themselves.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of operations in Iraq, outlined his plan in a congressional hearing after Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) asked whether American troops would vacate the "symbols of evil" that leave U.S. forces carrying "the baggage of the Hussein regime."

"They did bad things in those palaces," Taylor said of Hussein-era officials.

Abizaid said that "turning over these important symbols of sovereignty will demonstrate to the Iraqi people that this is a partnership and not domination."

The changes, he said, are underway and should be completed in a year.

"The palaces don't belong to us. The airports don't belong to us. Nothing there belongs to us," Abizaid said. "It's the right thing to do in the next year to move out of these areas.... And certainly, we will be doing that."

The palaces were chosen for use by U.S. military and civilian officials largely because they provided shelter in secure, walled compounds with large amounts of space, in some cases with running water and electricity despite a coalition bombing campaign that targeted the sites, leaving gaping holes in ornate marble walls and intricately tiled ceilings.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority is headquartered in what was Hussein's main palace in Baghdad, and Abizaid did not say whether it or other civilian elements of the occupation would move out. In the long term, the U.S. is planning a large embassy in Baghdad.

As for the airport, Abizaid said he had informed U.S. troops that "I expect them to move out of the Baghdad airport area." He told the congressional panel that troops were shifting operations to the airfield at Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

"You've noticed that we are making Balad airfield our primary hub in the region, and the idea of doing that is because we need to have the Baghdad International Airport revert to civilian control," Abizaid said. "We need to have the Basra International Airport revert to civilian control at the earliest opportunity." The Basra airport, near Iraq's southern tip, is controlled by the British military.

For troops already pulling yearlong tours, the change is likely to make a difficult tour harsher still. For thousands of soldiers, it probably means a transition from palace living to pup tents in an inhospitable climate. Even on palace grounds, most soldiers shower in trailers where the hot water disappears during the morning rush.

The move probably would send troops to former Iraqi army and police barracks and to sites such as the former amusement park known as Dreamland outside Fallouja.

The grousing, Abizaid said, had already begun. "There is some resistance [from] units that get comfortable," he said.

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