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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad open to all of his citizens for the first time in 12 years Sunday amid efforts to cut spending and appease citizens who have been protesting for basic public services.

Al-Abadi referred to the opening of the Green Zone as part of the “measures promised to our citizens and this opening that we are witnessing points to continued plans to reform — actions which we will not back down from,” a statement from his office said, adding that al-Abadi was the first to pass through the newly-opened Green Zone, or the International Zone as it is officially known.

The four square mile (10 square kilometer) compound, on the west bank of the Tigris River, was declared off-limits to the public in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led occupation. The complex, with its high concrete walls lined with barbed wire, and heavily guarded checkpoints, is home to several palaces once belonging to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and was turned into the administrative headquarters for the U.S.-led coalition following the 2003 invasion. Today, it contains a number of residential apartment buildings and homes, including those of many senior Iraqi government officials. A number of foreign embassies are also there, including the U.S. embassy, which, at 104 acres, is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world.

The zone has continued to be a target for bombings and rockets over the years, despite the concrete walls that surround it.

A senior Green Zone security official told The Associated Press that much of the restrictions on movement inside the Green Zone will still remain in place, particularly on streets leading to high-level government buildings and embassies, including the U.S. embassy. The official spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to brief the media.

The decision to open a passage in and out of the Green Zone comes as calls for reform continue across Baghdad to end government corruption and reckless spending. Last month, in a rare show of unity, the Iraqi government unanimously backed a program proposed by al-Abadi to eliminate senior government posts and slash spending.


Associated Press writer Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.