Mortar fired during US handover of Iraqi palace

US ambassador scrambles for cover; no one wounded.

us ambassador to iraq (photo credit: AP)
us ambassador to iraq
(photo credit: AP)
Insurgents fired a mortar at a US ceremony attended by top officials on Tuesday to hand over a presidential palace in Saddam Hussein's hometown to local Iraqi authorities, sending the US ambassador scrambling for cover but causing no injuries. As a US colonel was giving a speech, the mortar round fell about 300 meters (yards) away from the palace in Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and the US commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, briefly went inside the palace following the blast, but emerged a few minutes later to continue the ceremony. Hamad Hamoud Shagtti, the Salahuddin provincial governor, did receive the keys to the palace from Casey and a deputy governor raised the Iraqi flag over the complex. Afterward, they took a tour through the building, which Saddam ordered built for his mother in 1991 and is considered the largest and most elaborate of the palaces built during his rule. "This was an ineffectual attempt to stop the progress that goes on everyday in Iraq," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the US command. He said the hand over of the palace was an important step forward in Iraq's development, something that the insurgent attacks have done little to slow down, despite daily violence. The palace is part of a complex on more than 1,000 acres overlooking the Tigris River. There are 136 buildings on the property, with a combined 1.5 million square feet of administrative and living space, including 18 palaces, the US command said in a statement before the ceremony. "The planned turnover of the complex to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance and the provincial government will be a landmark event highlighting the increased capability of the Iraqi government to administer and govern itself," said Col. Billy J. Buckner, Multi-National Corps-Iraq spokesman in the statement. Since it was taken over by US troops in 2003, it has served as a division headquarters for US forces based in the region. "Although 28 other coalition operating bases have already been turned over to Iraqi Security Forces control this year, the Tikrit Palace complex is the most significant transition of real estate thus far," the US statement said. Also on Tuesday, the US military said a US soldier was killed by a road side bomb during combat operations in western Iraq. The soldier assigned to the 2nd Marine Division died after the bomb detonated near his vehicle on Monday near Habaniyah, 80 kilometers (50 miles ) west of Baghdad. There are several US Army units assigned to the Marine division. The name of the deceased was withheld pending notification of next of kin. As of Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005, at least 2,098 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,638 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military's numbers. The figures include five military civilians.