The U.S. State Department, led by Ambassador James Jeffrey and Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, announced Sunday that it had officially opened the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil, Iraq.

Joined at the opening ceremony by Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani and Iraqi First Lady Hero Talabani, Jeffrey said, "It is our fondest wish that a strong and vibrant Kurdistan Region within a democratic and federal Iraq arise from the tragic history of this region."

In recent years northern Iraq and Erbil in particular has been marred by sporadic violence.

In 2004 a suicide attack during a Ramadan celebration killed 109 people, and in 2005 a suicide bomber killed more than 60 people at the Kurdistan Democratic Party office.

Ambassador Jeffrey added, "Our goal is to build an Iraq for all its citizens...Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Shia, Christian and Muslim, Yezidi and Shebak, one that respects all its citizens and one which is governed by the rule of law."

The office will cover the three provinces of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region; Erbil, Sulymaniyah and Dohuk, and succeeds the U.S Regional Construction Team, which had operated in the Iraqi Kurdistan Regions since 2007.

Civilian U.S agencies have made several contributions to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region over the years, including projects to provide water treatment, schools and an orphanage.

Meanwhile Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on his first visit to Iraq since assuming the new post last week, met with a leading Kurdish politican in Baghdad on Monday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Despite a recent uptick in violence, June was the deadliest month for U.S. forces serving in Iraq in two years, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told Panetta that his particular area of Baghdad had never been attacked.

Panetta joked, "I assure you that they've always decided you're not worth shooting."

Talabani was born in Kelkan, Iraq, just west of Erbil.

Panetta returns to Washington tomorrow.