By Missy Ryan and Peter Graff
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The United States opened its new embassy building in Baghdad Monday, a step meant to symbolize its transition from occupying power to an ally of a sovereign Iraqi government.
In recent weeks U.S. diplomats have gradually moved into the $592 million newly-built compound, the worldâ€™s largest U.S. embassy building, leaving behind a sprawling palace they had inhabited since toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003.
U.S. officials ruled Iraq directly from the same palace for more than a year after taking Baghdad.
The opening of the new embassy is in line with a change of power that was effected on New Yearâ€™s Day, when U.S. forces in Iraq officially came under an Iraqi mandate.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani attended the opening ceremony.
In a courtyard between two wings of the new building, the Iraqi national anthem was played, then U.S. Marines raised an American flag to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.
â€œIt is from here men and women, civilian and military, will help build the new Iraq,â€ Negroponte said in a speech.
U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker called the embassyâ€™s opening â€œa new era for Iraq and United States relations.â€
Talabani thanked the United States for helping create a democratic Iraq â€œwhich will serve as a model for other peoples of the eastern world.â€
The embassy has 1,200 employees, including diplomats, servicemen and staff from 14 federal agencies, U.S. embassy spokeswoman Susan Ziadeh told Reuters.
â€œIts scale reflects the importance of the U.S.-Iraq bilateral relationship,â€ she said. â€œIt reflects a more normal situation. This is a broadening of the relationship because the situation is more secure.â€
U.S. forces on New Yearâ€™s Day handed over responsibility to Iraqi troops for the Green Zone, a fortified compound in the heart of Baghdad off limits to most Iraqis, who have widely viewed it as a symbol of foreign military occupation.
The new embassy is located in the zone.
The U.S. force in Iraq, now more than 140,000 strong, had previously operated under a U.N. Security Council resolution.
U.S. troops now work under the authority granted by the Iraqi government under a pact agreed by Washington and Baghdad.
That pact — viewed by both countries as a milestone in restoring Iraqi sovereignty — requires U.S. troops to leave in three years, revokes their power to hold Iraqis without charge and subjects contractors and off-duty troops to Iraqi law.
Ziadeh said the mission of the new embassy would start to resemble those in other embassies around the world.
â€œOur work is looking at a whole range of issues on trade, on energy … transportation sectors, rule of law,â€ she said.
(Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Dominic Evans)