Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Baghdad's fortified Green Zone open to the public on Sunday, part of efforts to stem mounting discontent over poor services and abuse of power.
Protected by countless checkpoints and concrete barriers, the 10-square-kilometre (4-square-mile) area on the bank of the Tigris River had become a symbol of the disconnect between Iraq’s leadership and its people – as well as wreaking havoc on traffic in the city of 7 million.
It once housed the headquarters of the US occupation and before that one of Saddam Hussein's republican palaces, and is now the seat of government and of several Western embassies.
Wave of protests
The move comes amid a wave of protests by Iraqis in Baghdad and many southern cities calling for the provision of basic services, the trial of corrupt politicians and the shakeup of a system riddled with graft and incompetence.
Abadi's government has eliminated senior government posts and cut politicians' security details and perks in an effort to cut wasteful state spending and appease public anger over poor governance.
He has also ordered the formation of committees to review the sale and rental of state properties, return illegally obtained assets and restore to the state those that were "unfairly evaluated".
Some top politicians have managed to obtain Saddam-era palaces or other valuable properties either free of charge or for far less than their true value.
Security officials said Sunday two entrances to the Green Zone had been opened to ordinary people and that army special forces would handle the task of maintaining security.
Abadi personally greeted some citizens in their vehicles as they entered the Green Zone on Sunday through one of the newly opened entrances, said Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for the prime minister.
"Army special forces in coordination with Baghdad's security operation will make sure security is maintained to prevent any terrorist attacks," Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said.
Despite the concrete barriers protecting it, the Green Zone has been a regular target for bombings over the years.
Its opening to the public is likely to raise alarm bells among Western diplomats concerned about security threats to embassies located in the area, including the US mission.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2015-10-05