Panetta: Iraq is ready to 'defend itself'

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday evening that Iraqi security forces are ready to govern the Middle Eastern nation, and he saluted U.S. forces.

The nearly nine-year war is "a testament to [U.S. forces'] strength and resilience that we are now able to bring this war to a responsible end," Panetta said in a statement. "Thanks to their service and sacrifice, Iraq is ready to govern and defend itself and to contribute to security and stability in a vital part of the world."

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Echoing President Obama and other White House officials, Panetta said Washington "will now turn our full attention to pursuing a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq based on mutual interests and mutual respect."

"Our goal will be to establish a normal relationship similar to others in the region that focuses on meeting security and training needs," Panetta said hours after Obama announced all American forces would be withdrawn from Iraq by Dec. 31.

"Iraq is a sovereign nation that must determine how to secure its own future," Panetta said. "Going forward, we will work closely with the Iraqi government and their armed forces to help them continue to build a stronger and more prosperous country."

President Obama and his national security team earlier Friday stressed they would seek to build with Iraq the kind of partnership Washington has with other nations.

That will include a military training program that spans weapons training and joint exercises between the two nations' navies and air forces, Obama administration officials said during a Friday press briefing.