WASHINGTON– President Barack Obama hailed the completed withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraqi cities Tuesday as “an important step forward” and a testament to the commitment of American troops.

In accordance with the status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq, only a contingent of U.S. trainers and advisors will remain as brigades and battalions depart the cities, where Iraqi forces now have primary authority.

“Today, American troops have transferred control of all Iraqi cities and towns to Iraq’s government and security forces,” Obama said, as Tuesday’s audience at the White House East Room applauded. “This is an important step forward, as a sovereign and united Iraq continues to take control of its own destiny.”

The move represents part of the U.S. strategy to responsibly end the war, said Obama, who has begun implementing the phased drawdown of U.S. combat brigades from Iraq to be completed by Aug. 31, 2010.

The president said Iraqis were rightly treating the day as a celebration, with news reports from Baghdad describing Iraqis marking the day with a military parade and Baghdad declaring a national holiday. Obama said that while the U.S. will remain an ally, today’s progress in Iraq comes with added responsibility.

“Iraq’s future is in the hands of its own people,” he said. “And Iraq’s leaders must now make some hard choices necessary to resolve key political questions, to advance opportunity, and to provide security for their towns and their cities.”

Obama said today’s bombing in Kirkuk, which reportedly killed as many as 41 people, underscores that violence in Iraq will continue and that “difficult days” loom. But he expressed confidence, however, that insurgent forces would fail.

“The future belongs to those who build, not those who destroy,” he said. “And today’s transition is further proof that those who have tried to pull Iraq into the abyss of disunion and civil war are on the wrong side of history.”

The fact that Iraqis are celebrating today’s transfer of authority is a testament to the courage, capability and commitment of Americans who have served in Iraq, Obama said.

“Through tour after tour of duty, our troops have overcome every obstacle to extend this precious opportunity to the Iraqi people,” he said. “These women and men are not always in the headlines, but they’re in our hearts and prayers, and we will forever honor their selfless service and sacrifice, as well as the service and sacrifice of their families.

“There is more work to be done, but we’ve made important progress in supporting a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq. And everyone who has served there, both in uniform as well as our civilians, deserves our thanks.”

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