U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have presided over the launch of Operation New Dawn, the U.S. military's postcombat mission to "assist and advise" Iraqi forces.
The two attended a U.S. military ceremony in Baghdad that marks the beginning of what has been described as a new era in Iraq.
It follows by less than 24 hours U.S. President Barack Obama's declaration from the White House that U.S. combat operations in the country have ended, more than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein's regime.
The Baghdad event marks the transition to what the Pentagon hopes will be the final phase of the Iraq war -- shifting the focus from combat operations to preparing Iraqi troops to protect the country on their own.
General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq since taking over from General David Petraeus in 2008, officially handed over command of nearly 50,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq to Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin.
The presence of Biden and Gates at the ceremony -- which took place near Baghdad International Airport at a palace formerly used by Saddam Hussein -- highlighted the historic significance of the event.
Biden emphasized that the U.S. soldiers still in Iraq are "as combat ready as any" in the U.S. military.
"Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, but American engagement with Iraq will continue with the mission that begins today -- Operation New Dawn," Biden said. "This ceremony not only marks the change of command, but the start of a different chapter in the relationship with Iraq."
Stressing that Iraqis are ready to provide security for their own country, Biden said Iraqi forces share credit for improving security in Iraq and reducing the level of sectarian violence in recent years.
"Today, while the threat -- a tragic reality -- of further bloodshed remains, violence has reached the lowest point since 2003 when we arrived here, shortly after we arrived here," Biden said. "And a great deal of credit goes to Iraqi security forces -- more than 650,000-strong, including highly trained special operations forces who are increasingly ready to defend their fellow citizens."
Gates, meanwhile, credited Odierno and the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq for improved security in the country and decreased levels of violence during the past three years.
Iraqis 'Step Up'
Speaking on August 31, U.S. Major General Steven Lanza, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the goal of Operation New Dawn was to build the capacity of Iraq's own security forces ahead of the eventual withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country, scheduled for the end of next year.
"You have a professional force of 660,000 both in the [Iraqi] police and in the army. They are capable of doing internal security," Lanza said. "There is still a lot of work to be done to build that capability, to extend it to an external foundation of capacity. And part of our commitment and part of the reason we are still here is to help them build that capability and capacity as our mission ends in December 2011."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he thought Iraqi security forces were already capable of maintaining internal security in Iraq. Zebari noted that Iraqi forces carried out the bulk of security work -- with limited support from the United States -- during general elections earlier this year.
But he added that "defending Iraq against foreign aggression...will take time."
"I am not going to put a time ceiling on [Iraq's own self-defense]...but it is a process because any country needs to have a viable air-defense system, air-force capabilities, naval forces, and this can only be materialized by training, by equipment, and by arming, and this will take time," he said.
But many Iraqis who welcome the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops say they are worried that violence could flare in their country. Baghdad resident Abu Walid told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that he worried about the capabilities of Iraqi security forces.
"We hope to get rid of [U.S. troops] as soon as possible on the condition that they first restore security because they are the ones who shook the country's security," Walid said. "They have to secure the borders and then they can complete their withdrawal. They could withdraw like this and leave borders unsecured in southern areas with Iran and other neighboring countries and leave this country in chaos."
Iltifat, another Baghdad resident, told RFE/RL he would consider Iraq to be an occupied country until the last U.S. soldier left -- a milestone the Obama administration says will take place by the end of 2011.
"We are still an occupied country, so whether the U.S. Army withdraws or not, we are still an occupied country," Iltifat said. "When the last U.S. soldier leaves Iraqi bases and no U.S. base remains in the country, we will say that the U.S. troops have withdrawn. Now, the U.S. Army is still here and the country is occupied and it will remain occupied. The country is also too weak."
During this week's visit to Baghdad, Biden has been assuring Iraqis that the United States is not abandoning their country but instead wants to build a long-term partnership.
Biden has also been encouraging Iraqi political factions to overcome their differences and forge a coalition government. The Iraqi factions have been unable to agree on a new government nearly six months after inconclusive elections in March.
written by RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz in Prague; RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report from Baghdad