BAGHDAD – There’s a plaque on a wall at the U.S. Embassy that memorializes the 31 diplomats, staffers and contractors killed in action since the Iraq war began, a poignant reminder of the risks taken by those living and working here.

At the embassy’s Independence Day reception Monday, amid the obligatory talk of diplomatic progress and budding business ventures, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey noted the sacrifice of his colleagues.

“Our national anthem played here and everywhere in America today sings of ‘rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air,’ merely stirring words for most Americans, but grim reminders to you who serve in Iraq that freedom comes at a price,” Jeffrey said.

“Like our brothers and sisters in the military, you have faced hardship, danger, and separation from your families. Our diplomats and aid workers of the U.S. Embassy and in the [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] around the country have helped build schools and hospitals, expanded local governance capacity, fought corruption, and nurtured the growth of new economic opportunities for ordinary Iraqis in every province of this country.”

Speaking to hundreds of guests, including Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, members of the Iraqi parliament, and ambassadors from Kuwait, Russia and Japan, Jeffrey referred to the plaque, noting that those listed “made the ultimate sacrifice for this mission, for their country, and for the people of Iraq.”

By year’s end, roughly 17,000 U.S. diplomats, contractors and security personnel will be assigned to about 15 sites across Iraq – stepping up in place of U.S. troops, most of whom are slated to leave the country by December.

Though violence against Americans is down considerably, June was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq in two years, and a contractor working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Stephen Everhart, was killed 11 days ago when his convey hit a roadside bomb while leaving a university in Baghdad.

In recent days, government auditors have once again warned that the State Department still isn’t prepared to assume new security responsibilities from the military. Jeffrey said on Saturday that any sustained U.S. presence in Iraq will require more cooperation from Iraqi security forces.

The July 4 holiday passed here with renewed violence targeting local police officers and the Iraqi Army and initial reports suggest none of the bombings, booby-trapped cars and shootings targeted Americans.

But they aren’t taking any risks. Embassy personnel preparing to leave the building Monday were seen carrying protective vests and helmets, still a must-have for any journey beyond the fortified compound.