BAGHDAD Overall U.S. troop levels in Iraq will fall by about 5,000 when a combat brigade completes its pullout from the country's volatile Diyala province next month, U.S. military officials said on Saturday.
The 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division is the first brigade not be replaced by fresh troops from the United States since the U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus announced plans to cut forces by some 20,000 by July 2008 as violence ebbs.
There are now about 162,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
While the brigade is leaving, the number of U.S. soldiers in Diyala will actually increase with units elsewhere in the country redeploying to the province northeast of Baghdad.
The 3rd Brigade was not part of President George W. Bush's "surge" of 30,000 troops in the first half of 2007. But its departure marks the first big reversal of a troop build-up ordered to pull Iraq back from the brink of all-out civil war.
"The redeployment without replacement reflects overall improved security within Iraq," military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told a news conference.
"If conditions continue to permit, a total of five brigade combat teams will be redeployed over the next eight months," Smith said, putting a full brigade at 5,000-6,000 personnel.
Colonel David Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade, told the news conference Diyala was a different province than when he deployed there 15 months ago.
"Today there is hope in Diyala," he said.
Sutherland painted a grim picture of Diyala's recent past: a province in the grip of al Qaeda militants, where Iranian-backed militias plotted violent attacks and remnants of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party vied to regain power.
A dysfunctional government "afraid to come to work" and plagued by rampant corruption further undermined order, he said, while hapless residents were starved of basic services.
But killings, kidnapping and suicide attacks had decreased in Diyala by over 68 percent since April, he said.
Sutherland said U.S. troops had particular success against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
He also credited much of the improvement in Diyala to more effective Iraqi police and army, and to around 3,000 local men who had joined neighborhood watch patrols.
Some 700 of the so-called "concerned local citizens" had since signed up to join the Iraqi police, he added.
Sutherland said progress was also being made in cobbling together a measure of political consensus in the ethnically diverse province, home to more than two dozen major tribes.
But Diyala remains a dangerous place.
A suicide bomber killed at least 30 Iraqi policemen in the provincial capital Baquba in late October, while suspected al Qaeda militants beheaded a school guard and his wife on Friday in front of the victims' children.
U.S. officials insist they are not abandoning Diyala. Beginning on November 27, troops from the larger 4th Striker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, located near Baghdad, will take over the area, military officials say.
(Editing by Dean Yates and Charles Dick)