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U.S. Opens Baghdad Embassy, Largest In The World

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- The United States has opened its new embassy building in Baghdad, a step symbolizing 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 world'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 ousting Hussein.

The opening of the new embassy is in line with a change of power that was effected on New Year's Day, when U.S. forces in Iraq officially come under an Iraqi mandate.

"This new embassy is significant in that it reflects a more normal situation," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Ziadeh said. "This is a broadening of the relationship because the situation is more secure and we are able to transition to what we call a more normal embassy."

The embassy has 1,200 employees, including diplomats, service people and staff from 14 federal agencies, Ziadeh said, adding that "its scale reflects the importance of the U.S.-Iraq bilateral relationship."

U.S. forces on New Year'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 UN 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.

"Our work is looking at a whole range of issues on trade, on energy...transportation sectors, rule of law," she said.