BAGHDAD (Dec. 15, 2011) -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta joined Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey and other U.S. and Iraq leaders in honoring eight years of service and sacrifice as they commemorated the end of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
"No words, no ceremony can provide full tribute to the sacrifices that have brought this day to pass," the secretary said during a ceremony here.
Panetta paid tribute to the Iraqi government and military for their courage, leadership and loyalty to Iraq's future.
"Your dream of an independent and sovereign Iraq is now a reality," he said.
He also praised the leadership of Ambassador James Jeffrey and Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Forces Iraq, who oversaw the drawdown that the secretary called "one of the most complex logistical undertakings in U.S. military history."
"Your effort to make this day a reality is nothing short of miraculous," he said.
But Panetta reserved his highest praise for more than 1 million U.S. military members who served in Iraq since 2003.
"Your nation is deeply indebted to you," he said. "You have done everything your nation asked you to do and more. Your dedication, your commitment to this mission has been the driving force behind the remarkable progress we have seen here in Baghdad and across the country."
The secretary recognized the nearly 4,500 service members who died and more than 30,000 who were wounded making this progress a reality.
He also acknowledged family members who have experienced the strain, sacrifice and heartbreak of watching their loved ones deploy into harm's way time and time again.
The outcome being commemorated today was never certain, the secretary said. He recalled traveling to Iraq in 2006, one of the most challenging periods of the conflict, as part of President George H.W. Bush's Iraq Study Group. Sectarian violence had spiraled out of control and Iraq was in turmoil.
Five years later, at great cost in both blood and treasure, "the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real," the secretary said.
"The Iraqi army and police have been rebuilt. Violence levels are down, al-Qaida weakened, rule of law strengthened, educational opportunities expanded and economic growth expanding," he said. "And this progress has been sustained even as we have withdrawn nearly 150,000 U.S. combat forces from the country."
The cost has been high, in blood and treasure for the United States and for the Iraqi people, Panetta noted. "But because of the sacrifices made, these years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity," for a free, independent and sovereign Iraq," he said.
Panetta emphasized that Iraq's challenges aren't over, but promised that the United States will continue to stand with Iraq as it navigates them.
"Together with the Iraqi people, the United States welcomes the next stage in U.S.-Iraqi relations, one that will be rooted in mutual interest and mutual respect," he said.
In addition to a significant diplomatic presence, the United States will continue to promote partnership between U.S. and Iraqi military forces, Panetta said.
"We will continue to help Iraq address violent extremism and defend against external threats," he said, helping protect "all that has been sacrificed and accomplished. We will continue to have a robust and enduring military presence across the Middle East."
For Iraq, Panetta called today an opportunity for it to forge ahead on a path to security and prosperity.
"We undertake this transition today reminding Iraq that it has in the United States a committed friend and a committed partner," he said. "We owe it to all the lives that have been sacrificed in this war not to fail."
"This is not the end," he concluded. "This is truly the beginning."
After the casing of the colors, Panetta met with about 100 service members deployed during the final days of Operation New Dawn to thank them for their service.
"It is because of you," and those who served here during the past eight years, "that we are able to be here today to mark the end of this war," he said.
Asked by a young service member if the United States will be able to assist the Iraqis in the future if they need it, Panetta expressed confidence that it will, in accordance with an agreement to be reached by the Americans and Iraqis.
"We may be ending the war, but we are not walking away from our responsibilities," he said.