IRAQ

New US embassy opens in Baghdad

The new US embassy was inaugurated in a heavily fortified zone in Baghdad on Monday. For American officials, this a further step towards normalising diplomatic ties between the two countries.

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AFP - The United States inaugurated its gigantic new embassy in Baghdad on Monday, ushering in what American officials described as a new era in relations with Iraq nearly six years after it invaded the country.

"It is the start of a new era for Iraq, and a new era in US-Iraq relations," Ambassador Ryan Crocker said in a speech at a ceremony attended by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

Officials moved into the new 700-million dollar embassy weeks ago but celebrated its opening with a flag-raising ceremony on Monday, four days after the United States officially handed over to Iraq security control of the Green Zone.

Although the new embassy complex lies within the heavily fortified zone officials said the ceremony marked another step towards more normalised diplomatic relations between Washington and Baghdad.

Under an agreement between the two nations which took effect on January 1, the US military must now operate under the authority of the Iraqi government.

Although it will maintain its independent chain of command, it will be subject to Iraqi laws under certain conditions.

The accord also allows US troops to play an advisory role to the Iraqi military as they prepare to pull out out Iraqi cities in June and before leaving entirely at the end of 2011.

When the United States took over the Green Zone soon after the 2003 invasion, it closed off the 14.5 square kilometre (5.6 square mile) area on the bank of the Tigris in central Baghdad to most Iraqis and reinforced it with four metre high concrete walls.

Saddam Hussein's sprawling palace became the headquarters of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority government when the dictator was toppled by the US-led invading force.

When that body was dissolved in June 2004 the building became the US embassy, housing more than 1,000 staff.

The new purpose-built state-of-the-art ochre US embassy complex is located a few hundred metres (yards) from Saddam's palace.

The sprawling embassy is the biggest American mission anywhere in the world but the cost of running the new complex is expected to be so exorbitant that the US will be forced to rent out part of the space, according to a state department official.

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