The Washington Post declares on its New Year’s front page that the U.S government has turned into a pumpkin in Baghdad’s fortified “Green Zone.” In “As Clock Strikes 12, U.S. Hands Iraq Control of Green Zone,” the paper splashes a lot of color around about “the walls of the majestic Republican Palace” being “stripped bare,” the vaults that once cradled American cash and documents “gone” and the “salsa night” dances and pool parties just a haunting echo of the zone’s west-imbued past.

The handover is a sign of the shrinking footprint and influence of the United States in a country where it has lost thousands of lives and spent billions of dollars. For many Iraqis, the handover represents a significant step forward in their gradual reassertion of dominion over their own affairs.

“On January 1, we are going to control this,” Adnan Karim, 22, an Iraqi soldier manning a checkpoint at one of the entrances to the Green Zone, said, beaming. “The U.S. will be here just as observers. It’s a matter of pride.”

That would — as WaPo puts it — be a “significant step forward,” if that were true. But as the story tells in the jump, it is the Americans who will be maintaining a significant influence in the Zone. To be sure, “Iraqi flags have sprung up along the Green Zone’s mazelike entry points,” but it is Red, White and Blue that will be manning those security checkpoints, according to the report:

“[Americans] will remain in charge of issuing badges that grant varying levels of access into the area. They said they will not immediately dismantle a vast security apparatus that includes hundreds of Peruvian and Ugandan guards, body-scanning machines, bomb-sniffing dogs and surveillance cameras.

and

The long-term plan, which could change if security deteriorates, is to maintain a handful of heavily secured American compounds but gradually open other areas to traffic.

Curiously, the report barely mentions the Vatican-sized U.S Embassy compound that is already thriving inside the walls: “U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and his staff recently finished moving into a newly built embassy compound, made up of pale-orange buildings with small, bulletproof windows. The compound is expected to cost at least $736 million, and its construction was marred by delays and budget overruns.”

But the high price tag is not only the result of gross cost overruns — as in all construction projects here, and especially in post-war Iraq — but because the the embassy is so huge and the scope of it grew significantly over the course of its construction. In fact, with its 27 buildings on 104-acres of land in the Iraq’s capital city, it is a most significant footprint, and not in the market for shrinking. As i wrote in June ’07 when Secretary of State Rice was asking for more money for the near-finished project:

Due for completion in September, the $592 million campus is surrounded by concrete blast walls and features green grass gardens, palm-lined avenues and volleyball and basketball courts. Available to embassy employees are a PX, commissary, cinema, retail and shopping areas, restaurants, schools, a fire station, power and water treatment plants as well as telecommunications and wastewater treatment facilities.

The new 104-acre embassy complex has been called a “city within a city” in the heart of Baghdad, resting in the area now referred to as the fortified Green Zone. As designed now, the 619 blast-proof apartments may not be enough to accommodate some of the estimated 4,000 regular employees, contractors and local Iraqis working for the embassy, plus congressional and other diplomatic visitors who visit the capital on a regular basis.

The media, as usual, is taking the Bush Administration’s lead on the Iraq issue, that it is close to becoming a “non-story,” despite the fact that practically the same number of U.S forces were in Iraq as last New Year’s Day, and the ink is still drying on this so-called “status of forces agreement” of which varying interpretations of our commitment to leave that country and when have been floating around all month. Even this story about the Green Zone leaves the true state of things ambiguous. Who really is in charge?

But don’t expect much more in ’09 — The New York Times reported only Sunday that the three network news organizations have stopped putting full-time correspondents into Iraq and are instead moving on to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just where the new administration wants to be. The war, it would seem, has been declared “over.” Or in the spirit of those insipid New Year lists, Afghanistan: In/Iraq: Out. But in the case of the Green Zone, the Americans, despite the media’s declarations, are not “out,” not yet.