* 50,000 U.S. soldiers are staying on
* Iraq now stands as equal to United States - Maliki
* Biden in Baghdad to press leaders to form government
(Adds comment by Baath party and Maliki)
By Serena Chaudhry and Rania El Gamal
BAGHDAD, Aug 31 Iraq's prime minister said the end of U.S. combat operations on Tuesday restored Iraq's sovereignty and meant it stood as an equal to the United States, despite political deadlock and persistent violence.
U.S. troop levels were cut to 50,000 before the partly symbolic deadline of Aug. 31 set by President Barack Obama to fulfil his pledge to end the war launched by his predecessor George W. Bush.
The six remaining U.S. brigades will turn their focus to training Iraqi police and troops as Iraq takes charge of its own destiny ahead of a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of next year.
"Iraq today is sovereign and independent," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Iraqis in a televised address to mark the U.S. forces' shift to assisting rather than leading the fight against a Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi'ite militia.
"With the execution of the troop pullout, our relations with the United States have entered a new stage between two equal, sovereign countries."
Obama promised war-weary U.S. voters he would extricate the United States from the war, launched by Bush with the stated aim of destroying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
No such weapons were found. Almost a trillion dollars have been spent and more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the 2003 invasion. [ID:nN2798366]
Obama's Democrats are battling to retain control of Congress in November elections and he faces other challenges -- a worsening war in Afghanistan and storm clouds over the economy.
Tuesday's deadline was to some extent a symbolic one. The 50,000 U.S. soldiers staying on in Iraq for another 16 months are a formidable and heavily-armed force.
Iraqi security forces have already been taking the lead since a bilateral security pact came into force in 2009. U.S. soldiers pulled out of Iraqi towns and cities in June last year.
"WE'LL BE FINE, THEY'LL BE FINE"
Nevertheless, Iraqis are apprehensive as U.S. military might is scaled down, especially amid a political impasse six months after an inconclusive election. [ID:nLDE67S09W] [ID:nLDE67O0PC]
"We'll be just fine, they'll be just fine," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said after flying into Baghdad on Monday to mark the end of combat operations and to urge Iraqi leaders to speed up the formation of a new government.
"Notwithstanding what the national press says about increased violence, the truth is things are very much different. Things are much safer," Biden told Maliki on Tuesday before their meeting was closed to the media.
Toppled dictator Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party crowed that the U.S. pullback was a result of "devastating" strikes against U.S. troops by Iraqi resistance fighters.
"They withdrew dragging tails of failure and defeat, leaving by the same roads they used as invaders," it said in a statement carried by Iraqi websites. "The end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq is a useless attempt to save face, if any is left." <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ For a full menu of Iraq stories click [ID:nLDE67I0LE] Reuters Insider TV: www.dinkylink.co.uk/iraq ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
U.S. officials said Washington had a long-term commitment to Iraq, and the military pullback would allow diplomats to take the lead in building economic, cultural and educational ties. For that they need a new Iraqi government to be in place.
Violence has declined sharply since the peak in 2006/07 of the sectarian slaughter unleashed by the invasion, but a recent series of attacks has rung alarm bells.
The animosity that led to carnage between majority Shi'ites and once dominant Sunnis has not healed, and a potentially explosive dispute between Arabs and Kurds has not been resolved.
More than 1.5 million Iraqis are still displaced after being driven from their homes by violence. Many live in squalor.
Many Iraqis had hoped the March 7 election would chart a path toward stability at a time when deals to develop the country's vast oilfields hold the promise of prosperity.
Instead, the ballot could widen ethnic and sectarian rifts if the actual vote leader, ex-premier Iyad Allawi's Sunni-backed cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance, is excluded from power by the major Shi'ite-led political factions.
"I promise you the sectarian war will not return. We will not allow it. Iraqis will live as loving brothers," Maliki said.
Suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda have tried to exploit the political vacuum and declining U.S. troop numbers with suicide bombings and assassinations.
They have targeted security forces in particular. A suicide bomber killed 57 army recruits and soldiers on Aug. 17 and more than 60 died on Aug. 25 in attacks on police stations.
Iraqis also fear that Shi'ite Iran will seek to fill any vacuum left by the U.S. military, in competition with Sunni-led neighbours such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Khalid al-Ansary, Muhanad Mohammed and Aseel Kami; writing by Michael Christie; editing by Andrew Roche)