By Tim Cocks
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military in Iraq came under Iraqi authority on Thursday for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, a milestone in the war-weary country's path to restoring sovereignty.
The U.S. force in Iraq, now more than 140,000 strong, had operated since 2003 under a U.N. Security Council resolution which expired at midnight on New Year's Eve. Starting January 1, troops are operating with authority granted by the Iraqi government in a pact agreed by Washington and Baghdad.
The pact gives U.S. troops three years to leave Iraq, revokes their power to detain Iraqis without an Iraqi warrant, and subjects contractors and off-duty U.S. troops to Iraqi law.
The new, tough terms of the U.S. presence here were secured by an increasingly confident Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, emboldened by a maturing democracy, military victories against Shi'ite militias and progress against al Qaeda militants.
U.S. and Iraqi officials were to hold a ceremony on Thursday morning to formally hand over control of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified Baghdad compound from which the United States governed Iraq directly for more than a year after the invasion.
"The role of the coalition forces (in the Green Zone) will be secondary, centred on training Baghdad brigade troops to use equipment to detect explosives and advising Iraqi forces," Qassim Moussawi, spokesman of Iraqi forces in Baghdad, said.
U.S. troops across Iraq remain under U.S. command but their operations must be authorised by a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee and they can detain Iraqis only with a warrant from an Iraqi judge. They are to leave the streets of Iraqi towns and cities by mid-2009 and withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.
Other U.S.-allied troops, including 4,100 British, are to leave Iraq within seven months.
On Wednesday, U.S. officials finished vacating the marble Saddam-era palace in the centre of the Green Zone that had been the seat of U.S. power in Iraq since 2003.
Some 15,000 prisoners held at U.S. military detention camps must now be charged with crimes under Iraqi law or, according to the security pact, gradually let go.
Iraqi forces take over a dramatically different Iraq from the one ravaged by sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.
Attacks have dropped sharply, thanks partly to an increase of troops ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007 and also to newfound cooperation from Sunni Arab tribal leaders.
Militants continue to strike, especially with bomb attacks that frequently target civilians. According to official health ministry figures, 5,379 civilians were killed during the year, less than a third of the 16,232 killed in 2007 but still an average of nearly 15 a day.
In December, the monthly toll was just 238 killed. The monthly tolls ran close to 2,000 at the height of sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites from mid-2006 to mid-2007.
This month will see provincial elections that U.S. and Iraqi officials bill as a milestone towards democracy.
But Iraq remains deeply scarred by the war. Baghdad neighbourhoods are divided by checkpoints and concrete walls. Millions of people who fled violence have yet to return home.
Many Iraqis still resent what they see as a U.S. military occupation. They are also hungry for basic services, jobs, and lasting peace. Majid Mola, an engineer, dismissed as meaningless the handover billed by Maliki's government as a major victory.
"Where are the government services? Where is the electricity? People want practical things," he said.
In what could become one of the most enduring images of the U.S. military adventure, Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi won applause across the Middle East when he threw his shoes at Bush and called him a "dog" at a recent news conference with Maliki.
His trial for assaulting a head of state is pending.
(Editing by Charles Dick)