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U.S. troops in Iraq below 50,000 as combat ends
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Tuesday it had cut its troops in Iraq to below 50,000 before an August 31 deadline set by President Barack Obama as he seeks to keep a promise to end the war.
The withdrawal of 90,000-plus soldiers, 40,000 vehicles and 1.5 million items from radios to generators has progressed steadily over the past months, despite continuing violence and a political impasse five months after an inconclusive election.
Meeting the deadline allows Obama to fulfill a pledge to end combat operations and start extricating the United States from the war, which grew deeply unpopular as casualties mounted and costs soared. Obama's Democrats are seeking to retain control of Congress in elections in November.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, said troop numbers were at around 49,700 and would stay at that level for the next year before a full withdrawal by the end of 2011 agreed in a bilateral security pact.
"My planning.. is it will stay at that level through next summer," Odierno told reporters in Baghdad, adding that the timeline would give the U.S. Embassy the space it needed to take over tasks still done by the military.
"The war is not over. There is still danger. There's still lots of people who will attack our forces, we all know that. Until we get every last soldier out of here, our commitment to this is not over," Odierno said.
The end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq comes 7-1/2 years after the invasion launched by former President George W. Bush to topple Saddam Hussein.
More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the invasion.
At least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have also died, according to various counts, in sectarian warfare unleashed between majority Shi'ites and the minority Sunni Muslims who dominated the country under Saddam, and in a fierce insurgency.
Many Iraqis had hoped the March 7 election would lead to greater stability and prosperity in a country hungry for investment after decades of war and sanctions.
Yet, more than five months on, Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish factions are still in talks to form a coalition government, leaving the country with a political vacuum that insurgents have tried to exploit through suicide bombings and assassinations.
The six remaining U.S. brigades in Iraq will move into an advisory role on September 1, training and supporting Iraq's army and police as they fight a weakened al Qaeda-linked insurgency.
Most U.S. military units began switching their focus to training and assisting Iraqi troops and police when they pulled out of Iraqi towns and cities on June 30, 2009, so there will be little effective change on the ground by September 2.
Odierno said he was confident Iraq's political leaders would eventually come to an agreement on a government and that its security forces were up to the task of defending the country.
He said it was time for Iraqis to stop seeing the United States as "100,000 guys running around in uniforms, providing security, occupying the country," but in terms of the economic, educational, diplomatic and educational help it could give them.
Obama has said no U.S. service members will remain in Iraq by January 1, 2012, even though it will be impossible for Iraq to stand up its own multi-role air force and be fully ready to protect its territorial integrity by then.
But Odierno said if Iraq's leaders asked the United States to retain support personnel in the country, or help it with air defences, the request would not be rejected out of hand.
"If they ask us we certainly will consider it. But it's not going to be 50,000 soldiers," he said. He said numbers would likely be similar to deployments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. military has less than 1,000 personnel.
(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary and Michael Christie; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
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