Iraq to open Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone to public

If he succeeds, Adil Abdul Mahdi will be the first official to secure permanent public access in 15 years

Iraqi security forces close a bridge leading to the heavily guarded Green Zone during protests demanding services and jobs in central Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, July 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
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Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi said yesterday that he will permanently open Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone to the public on Sunday, in a move that he hopes will improve strained relations between his government and a frustrated Iraqi public.

This is the second attempt by an Iraqi prime minister to grant public access to the area, located on the west bank of the Tigris River, after former Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi failed to open-up the highly secured zone for more than a few days during his term.

If he succeeds, Mr Abdul Mahdi will be the first official to secure permanent public access in 15 years.

The zone, established by the US in 2003 to securely house its embassy and Iraqi government institutions, also houses other embassies, multinational companies and lavish residences belonging to politicians and diplomats.

Ringed by blast walls, topped with barbed wires and guarded by security forces, the Green Zone has been spared the violence and instability that rocked other parts of the capital in recent years, fuelling the perception among Iraqis that they are being denied the safety and security afforded to foreign dignitaries and the country’s ruling elite.

“We are pressing ahead with our plans to open up the Green Zone in Baghdad,” Mr Abdul Mahdi said on Twitter on Thursday.

He said administration is deploying new techniques to provide security around the Iraqi capital, in comments likely intended to allay fears of those who believe that the area will be exposed to security threats if the public gains free access.

The latest announcement appears to be part of a wider campaign by the prime minister, who is trying to cast himself as a politician in touch with the public.

Following his appointment last month, he moved his office out of the secured Green Zone, saying that he wants to consider “all of Iraq a Green Zone.”

President Barham Salih is also trying to improve his government’s image. Earlier on Monday, he visited the Abu Hanifa Mosque in the northern Baghdad neighbourhood of Adhamiyah – once considered an insurgent hotbed and a “no-go” area for senior officials.

Meanwhile, the former president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) Masoud Barzani arrived in Baghdad on Thursday in his first visit to capital in over two years.

Despite no longer leading the autonomous region, Mr Barzani remains a powerful figure and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, meeting with Mr Abdul Mahdi in a sign of an improvement of relations between Baghdad and the the KRI, after ties were strained by a controversial Kurdish independence referendum held last year.

More than 90 per cent of those who voted in the referendum backed secession. The federal government in Baghdad, however, deemed the poll unconstitutional, and responded to the move by imposing economic penalties and seizing the disputed Kirkuk oil fields.

Officials in Baghdad and the KRI are now hoping for a thaw in relations.

"As representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Party we want to have constructive relations with new Iraqi leaders and to open a new chapter in our relations," Jangish Awakaly, a Kurdistan Democratic Party member told The National.

Thursday’s meeting between Mr Barzani and Mr Abdul Mahdi was meant to emphasise Kurdish "support for the prime minister in forming his new government and to assist both sides in coming to an agreement on the proposed budget, oil security and normalisation of disputed territories," he said.

Since the appointment of Mr Abdel Mahdi last month, relations appear to have improved between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders in Erbil, the capital of the KRI.

In March, Iraq's parliament passed a budget that saw Kurdistan's slice of the federal budget drop from 17 percent to 12.6 percent.

But, Mr Barazani's favoured candidate Fuad Hussein was appointed Iraq's minister of finance in October, and the two sides announced a deal last week to resume Kirkuk oil exports.

On Wednesday Mr Abdul Mahdi announced that Iraq will unify its customs procedures in all of its border areas, including within the Kurdistan region. The decision will be implemented after Baghdad reaches an agreement on the topic with the Kurdish government.

The premier said the unified procedures would make it easier to transport imported goods and commodities.

Currently, the semi-autonomous region imposes and collects custom tariffs on imported goods in border areas it controls, which Baghdad considers illegal. Baghdad, in turn, imposes more tariffs on commodities coming in from Kurdish-controlled border areas and the double customs have been seen as a burden by traders.

Mr Abdul Mahdi pledged that he would go to parliament next week to get his full cabinet approved. Lawmakers had only confirmed 14 out of the 22 ministers he initially presented but granted his government confidence, allowing him to become prime minister.

“Next week, Monday or Tuesday, we’ll go to parliament and present what we see as the right candidates to complete the cabinet. We take responsibility for whoever is selected," he said.