BAGHDAD (Reuters) - As the armored car carrying Westerners cut to the front of the line at a checkpoint into Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone, an enraged Iraqi leapt from his BMW and yelled at the occupants.
“Do that again and I’ll call General Farouk. He’ll take all your cards,” the man shouted, before returning to his car.
He was talking about the cards issued by the U.S. military that since the 2003 invasion have placed mainly foreign security contractors and people associated with U.S. forces above Iraqi law -- and at the front of every queue.
But as U.S. soldiers pull out of towns and cities this month, they are handing control back to Iraqi security forces. The balance of power is changing and Multinational Force Iraq (MNF-I) cards, which once guaranteed swift passage in a separate lane past waiting Iraqis, have lost their clout.
Iraqi troops now man all the checkpoints leading into the sprawling zone of Iraqi government buildings and foreign embassies -- tense areas once staffed by U.S. troops and sometimes Peruvians employed by a private security firm.
Some Iraqi soldiers scowl as they stop Western bodyguards ferrying VIPs to meetings inside the district, once home to Saddam Hussein’s palaces and monuments overlooking the River Tigris from its west bank. Two weeks ago, they would have driven straight past, holding up their MNF-I cards to a window.
Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, Iraq’s interior ministry spokesman, said local security forces had made big advances in partnership with the U.S. military, which is due to leave the country by the end of 2011 under a bilateral security pact.
“Since January 1 we have started to rearrange the deployment of forces,” Khalaf said. The Green Zone changes were merely “a sign of the improving performance of our security forces.”
Journalists were called to a press conference on Monday with Iraq’s defense and interior ministers alongside General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Such news conferences have been routinely held at CPIC, the U.S.-run Combined Press Information Center, and that was where the U.S. military initially told reporters to go.
Later, amid considerable confusion, the venue was switched to the press center at the Iraqi Council of Ministers building.
The message, encapsulated in a joke told by Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh at the beginning of the press conference, was clear.
“I‘m sorry for the delay. There are new procedures and the general had to get permission to enter the building,” he said as reporters chuckled and the towering Odierno, listening to an Arabic translation through headphones, smiled slightly.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Lin Noueihed