U.S. servicemen fold the American flag after it was lowered during the a handover ceremony of a military base in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
(AP) CAMP VICTORY, Iraq - Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday thanked U.S. and Iraqi troops for sacrifices that he said allowed for the end of the nearly nine-year-long war, even as attacks around the country killed 20 people, underscoring the security challenges Iraq still faces.
Biden's comments came during a special ceremony at Camp Victory, one of the last American bases in this country where the U.S. military footprint is swiftly shrinking. The ceremony was hosted by the Iraqi government as a way to commemorate the sacrifices of U.S., Iraqi and coalition forces during the nearly nine-year-long war.
"Because of you and the work that those of you in uniform have done, we are now able to end this war," Biden told the hundreds of American and Iraqi service members assembled at Al Faw palace, which was built by Saddam Hussein.
Joined by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, Biden said the United States takes "immense" pride in what American troops have done in Iraq. He said they are leaving with their heads held high.
By the symbolism at Al Faw, which has served as the U.S. military's headquarters almost since the first U.S. troops battled their way through here in 2003, it was apparent who was on the way in and who was on the way out.
Iraqi flags and tinsel, a favorite Iraqi decoration for festive occasions, replaced the American flags that used to line the driveway to the palace. Iraqi flags hung from the palace walls. After the ceremony was over, the Iraqi band members took out their packs and started smoking — almost unheard of in U.S. military facilities.
Talabani, referring at times to "our friends, the Americans," praised the troops for their sacrifices and said that based on the "joint efforts" of the coalition and Iraqi forces, stability in the country has been restored.
Biden's eighth visit to Iraq since being elected started on Tuesday and was meant to chart a path for a new U.S. relationship with a country that is home to billions of barrels of oil reserves and more closely aligned with neighboring Iran than the U.S. would like.
But even as the remaining American troops prepare to leave by the end of the year, violence and instability are still a constant in Iraq, albeit dramatically less so than at the height of the conflict.
Two separate attacks on Thursday in Iraq's northeast killed 20 people and wounded 32.
A parked car bomb exploded at an open marketplace in the town of Khalis as morning shoppers were starting to arrive, killing 13 and wounding 28 people, according to the police and Faris al-Azawi, the spokesman of Diyala's health directorate.
Khalis, a Shiite enclave 50 miles north of Baghdad, lies in the largely Sunni province of Diyala that was a hotbed of al Qaeda in Iraq during the height of the country's violence in 2004-2007.
Earlier at dawn — also in Diyala — gunmen stormed the home of an anti-al Qaeda Sunni fighter in the town of Buhris, killing him and six of his family members, said al-Azawi. Buhriz is located about 35 miles north of Baghdad.
Iraqi security officials maintain that they are fully prepared for the American withdrawal, which is required under a 2008 security pact between the U.S. and Iraq. About 13,000 U.S. troops are still in the country, down from a one-time high of about 170,000. All of those troops will be out of the country by the end of December.
But many Iraqis are concerned that insurgents may use the transition period to launch more attacks in a bid to regain their former prominence and destabilize the country.
Thursday's deaths bring to at least 56 the number of Iraqis killed in separate attacks across the country in the past eight days, a warning that even more violence may be in the offing ahead of the American withdrawal.
Biden did not address the day's violence directly, but emphasized that Iraqi security forces would be able to protect the country without their one-time American military backers.
"It doesn't mean that the threats are over. Far from it. Violent extremists continue to launch appalling attacks against innocent civilians, fire deadly rockets at diplomats merely trying to do their jobs and threaten Iraqi troops and police," Biden said.
"But Iraqi security forces have been well-trained, prepared and you are fully capable of meeting the challenges," he said.
The vice president also alluded to the threat of neighboring Iran, which U.S. officials have repeatedly accused of financing Shiite militias who then attack American troops and diplomats. In what appeared to be a warning to Iran — perhaps Iraq as well — Biden described the Iraqi spirit as "independent."
"The Iraqi people will not, have not, and will not again yield to any external domination, and they would never abide another nation violating their sovereignty by funding and directing militias that use Iraqi terrain for proxy battles that kill innocent Iraqi civilians," he said.
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