- Associated Press - Thursday, December 1, 2011

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq (AP) — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. 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.

Mr. 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 war.

“Because of you and the work that those of you in uniform have done, we are now able to end this war,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. Biden‘s visit to Iraq, which started on Tuesday, is 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 province’s health directorate.

Khalis, a Shiite enclave 50 miles north of Baghdad, lies in Diyala, a largely Sunni region 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, Mr. al-Azawi said. 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.

In an interview Thursday from Iraq on NBC’s “Today” show, Mr. Biden acknowledged the security concerns but said that “violence is at an all-time low” and that he believes the Iraqi government is capable of defending itself.

“We’re not claiming victory,” he said. “What we’re claiming here is we’ve done our job the administration said it would do. To end a war we did not start, to end it in a responsible way … and to leave in place the prospect of a trained military, a trained security force under democratic institutions where the disparate parties for the first time are actually working together.”

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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