BAGHDAD (AP) — The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has fallen below 50,000 for the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and ahead of the end-of-the-month deadline mandated by President Barack Obama, the American military said in a statement Tuesday.
The number is a watershed in the more than seven years that the United States has been at war in Iraq. Under Obama’s plan, American forces will no longer conduct combat operations but are instead to focus on training Iraqi troops.
“We’ve met our goal,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the commanding general in Iraq, told reporters Tuesday. “But the story is not about 50,000. The story is that we are continuing to be committed to Iraq. But our commitment is going to change.”
Odierno said that going forward, the focus will be on economic, political, cultural, and technological developments as opposed to just the military relationship.
There are currently 49,700 troops in Iraq and that number will remain level through next summer, Odierno said.
The drawdown comes at a fragile moment in Iraq’s history when many are wondering whether the country’s tenuous security and democracy gains are at risk of backsliding.
The country has gone almost half a year without a new government following the March 7 parliamentary elections. The elections failed to produce a clear winner to lead Iraq as American forces withdraw, and frequent attacks by insurgents are raising doubts about the ability of Iraqi forces to protect the country in the absence of American backup.
Underlining the threat to Iraq’s stability amid the political vacuum, an al-Qaida in Iraq front group announced it has targeted Iraqi judges in its campaign to re-ignite sectarian strife. The judges are on al-Qaida’s hit list because of handing death sentences to “Sunnis, imprisoned in Shiite prisons,” the group said.
According to a statement posted Tuesday on a website frequently used by militants, The Islamic State of Iraq said 12 Shiite judges in Baghdad have been targeted since the Aug. 11 start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The statement did not claim responsibility of any specific attack, but Iraqi police said four judges — including an appeals court judge — have been wounded in separate attacks in this period.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law Coalition garnered 89 seats in the election, has been battling to retain his office. A Sunni-backed coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, who is Shiite, won 91 seats in the balloting. But in Iraq’s deeply fragmented political system that still adheres closely to sectarian politics, neither side has been able to pull together a majority coalition.
The political stalemate shows no signs of abating before Sept. 1, when Odierno will officially hand over responsibilities to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III. At that time, Operation Iraqi Freedom — as the war has been called — will officially be changed to Operation New Dawn.
American officials have said repeatedly that their decision to continue with the drawdown — despite the absence of a new government in Iraq — reflects the improved security situation in recent years and their confidence in the ability of Iraqi security forces to protect the country.
The U.S. troop presence in Iraq has fluctuated over the years, reaching a high of about 170,000 troops in 2007 as part of the surge of forces intended to combat the insurgency and then slowly tapering off beginning in late 2008.
More than 4,400 American troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, although troop deaths tapered off significantly after the U.S. pulled back from the cities in June 2009, in line with an Iraq-U.S. agreement governing American troop presence in the country.
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, Obama announced a plan to cease combat operations and drop the number of troops in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of August 2010.
Under the 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 last of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which was officially designated the last combat unit to leave Iraq, drove out last week in their eight-wheeled Strykers, crossing into Kuwait early Thursday.
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.
Highlighting the continued risk, on Sunday, a U.S. soldier became the first service member to die in Iraq after the last combat brigade left the country.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Lara Jakes contributed to this report.