Baghdad: US forces formally ended their nine-year war in Iraq on Thursday with a low key flag ceremony in Baghdad, while to the north flickering violence highlighted ethnic and sectarian strains threatening the country in years ahead.
"After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at the ceremony at Baghdad`s still heavily-fortified airport.
Almost 4,500 US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives in the war that began with a "Shock and Awe" campaign of missiles pounding Baghdad and descended into sectarian strife and a surge in US troop numbers.
US soldiers lowered the flag of American forces in Iraq and slipped it into a camouflage-colored sleeve in a brief outdoor ceremony, symbolically ending the most unpopular US military venture since the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s.
The remaining 4,000 American troops will leave by the end of the year.
Toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is dead, executed in 2006 and the worst sectarian violence has, at least for now, passed. But Iraq still struggles with insurgents, a fragile power-sharing government and an oil-reliant economy plagued by power shortages and corruption.
"Iraq will be tested in the days ahead, by terrorism, by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues," Panetta told the rows of assembled US soldiers and embassy officials at the ceremony. "Challenges remain, but the United State s will be there to stand by the Iraqi people."
In Falluja, the former heartland of an al Qaeda insurgency and scene of some of the worst fighting in the war, several thousand Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal on Wednesday, some burning U.S. flags and waving pictures of dead relatives.
Around 2,500 mainly Shi`ite Muslim residents of the northern territory of Diyala protested on Thursday in front of the provincial council building for a second day against a move to declare autonomy from the mainly Sunni Salahuddin province.
Police used batons and water cannon to disperse demonstrators who tried to storm the council headquarters, witnesses said. Some protesters climbed to the roof of the building and raised green and black Shi`ite flags.