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In Baghdad, Mixed Feelings Over Iraqi Takeover of Green Zone

Among Iraqis, joy at the U.S. handover is tempered by doubts about the competence of its new guards.

At the gates of the Green Zone every day, Marwa Yasin is greeted by a volley of suggestive remarks from the Iraqi guards who this month took over from their American counterparts on checkpoint duty.

"Why is the moon so cross?" the men say, calling Yasin by the colloquial term for an aloof, beautiful woman. "What are you doing after work today? Why didn't you call me yesterday?"

The 19-year-old student is one of a growing group of women who says they run a gauntlet of insults and innuendo when they go to the Green Zone, a fortified complex of government offices, palm orchards and palaces built by Saddam Hussein. For the past six years, it has symbolized the United States presence in Iraq.

Iman al-Khalidi, a 23-year-old journalist, says she returned from a trip to the Green Zone to find a note containing a phone number inside her bag, supposedly left by a "lover who could who could not sleep" since he saw her at a checkpoint.

Khalidi believes the paper had been placed inside her bag during a search.

The responsibility for securing this vast area of central Baghdad passed from American to Iraqi forces on January 1, 2009.

Iraqi officials insist they will investigate all allegations of harassment against the guards now in charge of security.

Marwa Yasin, who attends an exclusive school inside the zone, says women had less to fear when the Iraqi security forces had American overseers.

"The American soldiers would punish any Iraqis who verbally harassed us and take away their badges," she said. "Now we miss their protection."

Most Iraqis and foreigners were barred from the Green Zone unless they lived or worked there. The U.S. military controlled access, protecting government officials and diplomats from the insurgency raging beyond its walls.

Amid a recent improvement in security, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki was able to hail the handover of the Green Zone as a sign that his country was regaining its sovereignty.

Weeks earlier, his government had finalized a deal on the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

The government says it will eventually open up the Green Zone to the public, though it has not set a date for this.

Mahdi Kathem, the 33-year-old owner of a food store in Baghdad's Harethya neighbourhood, said, "Entering the Green Zone has been like a dream for us."

He says the transfer of the zone to Iraqi control is a big step in the "restoration of our sovereignty".

Like Kathem, most Baghdadis are pleased at the promise of regaining access to a once-forbidden part of their city.

However, many who have been working inside the Green Zone are pessimistic about its prospects under Iraqi control.

They fear the gradual withdrawal of American forces will worsen security and take a chunk out of their earnings.

Adil Mahmoud, a 20-year-old taxi driver, says the takeover of the zone by Iraqi security forces has been bad for business.

"My profits have fallen because of traffic jams inside the zone," he said. "The Iraqi forces are closing off streets and setting up checkpoints, creating congestion just like they've done in the rest of Baghdad."

Ali Jasim, a 22-year-old working in the zone's Iraqi-owned Freedom restaurant, says the new security arrangements have prompted foreign companies to relocate to Baghdad airport, which remains largely under the control of foreign guards.

"The number of customers who used to come to the restaurant has fallen by half because of the danger," Jasim said.