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Companies flee Green Zone as Iraqis take over

Green Zone. International Zone. The Bubble. To the foreigners still living there, the Iraqi capital's fortified center has a new name: Ghost Town.

The Iraqi government has taken full control of the former heart of the American occupation. It decides who gets past the 17-foot-tall concrete blast walls encircling the zone.

On the inside, police and military forces have raided the offices of private security companies, prompting the firms and commercial companies that rely on them to relocate.

"They have hit a point where it's virtually impossible to stay," said Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association, a trade group that represents foreign firms and nonprofit organizations in Iraq.

The result: The International Zone has become the Iraqi Zone, and an increasingly isolated one at that.

"What we see now, in some ways, is they are fortifying it," said Iraqi parliament member Mahmoud Othman.

The zone, on the banks of the Tigris River, covers an area of about 5 square miles. It is more gray than green, with a mix of government buildings, homes and villas, crisscrossed by wide streets, skinny alleys and dusty palm trees.

In early 2009, the United States began transferring control over the zone to the Iraqi government as the country as a whole was becoming safer. Starting last spring, Iraqi officers started searching the security firms and later began cracking down on who gets coveted badges to get in and out of the zone, according to Brooks and businesses that have operated there. Now, the Iraqi government dominates the place.

Key parts of the Iraqi government are based there, including the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament. Many top Iraqi officials also live in the zone, getting to and from their walled-in homes via armed convoys. By 4 p.m., the roads are empty, save for police and soldiers posted at corners. Stand too long in one spot, and they will approach with questions. Snap a photograph, and they will arrive with their bosses.

Even a high-adventure tour group company that travels to Iraq said it can no longer get into the zone. That means having to forgo sites such as the gigantic crossed sabers held by hands modeled after those of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

"It drives me crazy because people, especially the Americans, ask, 'Where are Saddam's swords?' " said Geoff Hann, owner of British-based Hinterland Travel.

The Iraqi government has reason for security concerns. On Nov. 28, an assassin drove his bomb-laden SUV through one of the zone's heavily guarded entrances in what officials said was an attempt to kill the prime minister.