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U.S. military vacates main base in Iraq

Saddam's palaces and villas returned without ceremony

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military passed a milestone Friday in its pending withdrawal from Iraq, vacating its main base near a Baghdad airport that once housed the American war operations hub and hosted a captive Saddam Hussein before his execution.

The transfer of the country's largest American military base to Iraqi custody happened with little fanfare.

No ceremony was held.

The Camp Victory Base Complex, a site ringed by 27 miles of blast walls and razor wire, was the U.S. nerve center for the Iraq war almost from the moment American troops entered the capital and toppled Saddam's statue in 2003.

The handover of Camp Victory to Iraq's government was a big step in the U.S. pullout from Iraq as Washington consolidates its presence in Baghdad at its sprawling embassy in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Fewer than 500 U.S. troops remain in the capital.

About 12,000 troops are still in Iraq, down from a peak of about 170,000.

All the remaining forces are to leave by the end of this year, except for a small contingent of fewer than 200 attached to the U.S. Embassy.

"The Victory Base Complex was officially signed over to the receivership of the Iraqi government this morning," Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said by email. "The base is no longer under U.S. control and is now under the full authority of the Government of Iraq."

American forces have been closing down operations for months at Camp Victory, which once housed about 42,000 U.S. military personnel and another 20,000 support staff.

The top U.S. war leaders -- from Ricardo Sanchez to David Petraeus to the current commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin -- lived at one of Saddam's villas on the base.

U.S. officials said Saddam built the network of palaces and villas and a complex of lakes on the grounds.

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