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“They’re going face challenges in the future,” Panetta said Wednesday during a visit with troops in Afghanistan. “They’ll face challenges from terrorism, they’ll face challenges from those that would want to divide their country. They’ll face challenges from just the test of democracy, a new democracy and trying to make it work. But the fact is, we have given them the opportunity to be able to succeed.”

The ceremony at Baghdad International Airport also featured remarks from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Austin is leading the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 U.S. troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year — while still conducting training, security assistance and counterterrorism battles.

Over the coming days, the final few thousand U.S. troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights — a marked contrast to the shock and awe that rocked the country on March 20, 2003, as the U.S. invasion began.

Saddam Hussein has been ousted, the reports of weapons of mass destruction largely laid to rest. And the future of a nascent democracy awaits.