BAGHDAD: The number of US troops in Iraq fell below 50,000 Tuesday ahead of a declaration of an end to combat operations next week, a key milestone seven years on from the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
The number is a watershed — American forces will no longer conduct combat operations in the country but are instead to train Iraqi troops and help with counterterrorism operations, if asked for by the Iraqis.
"Today, in line with President Obama’s direction and as part of the responsible drawdown of forces, U.S. military force levels in Iraq are below 50, 000," the statement read.
"U.S. military forces will transition to Operation New Dawn, effective Sept 1, 2010," it added, referring to the change in operation name from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The news comes as a spike in unrest in the past two months has sparked concern that Iraqi forces are not yet ready to handle the country’s security on their own, and with no new government formed in Baghdad since polls in March.
The military did not give an exact number of how many troops are currently in the country. Lt. Col. Bob Owen, an American public relations official, said that the military would not comment on the exact figures.
"The important thing here is that we have reached the President’s directive and that our commitment to Iraq continues," Owen said.
The drop in troop levels signifies an important step for Obama, who was elected partially on a platform of promising to end the war. After taking office he announced a plan to cease combat operations and drop the number of troops in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of August 2010.
The current US troop level here is now less than a third of the peak figure of around 170,000 during "the surge" of 2007, when Iraq was in the midst of a brutal sectarian war in which thousands of Iraqis were killed.
A surge of violence in the past two months, however, has sparked concern that local forces are not yet ready to take over sole responsibility for the country’s security.
US commanders insist their Iraqi counterparts are up to the task, but Iraq’s top military officer said earlier this month that the country’s army would not be ready until 2020, and called for US forces to stay until then.
The top US commander in Iraq, meanwhile, admitted on Sunday that a "complete failure" of Iraqi security forces could oblige the United States to resume combat operations, but said this was an unlikely scenario.
Under an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, all American troops must be out of Iraq by the end of next year. The troops now remaining in the country will mainly be responsible for training Iraqi security forces.
The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which was officially designated at the last combat unit to leave Iraq, drove out last week in their eight-wheeled Strykers.
However, in an indication of how difficult it is to firmly draw a line between what is considered combat and what is not, the American military will still be taking part in such missions as counterterrorism operations, if U.S. help is requested by the Iraqis.
Also, the Americans will continue to have the right to defend themselves and their military facilities — all actions that could still bring American troops into harm’s way.