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U.S. says number of troops in Iraq below 50,000

* U.S. cuts troops to below 50,000 ahead of Aug. 31 deadline

* U.S. to end combat ops, switch to assisting Iraq forces

* Iraq still in political vacuum after March 7 vote

(Adds Odierno, details, background)

By Serena Chaudhry

BAGHDAD, Aug 24 (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Tuesday it had cut the number of its troops in Iraq to below 50,000 ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline set by President Barack Obama to end its combat missions.

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 ahead of 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 being undertaken by the military.

"The war is not over. There is still danger. Until we get every last soldier out of here, our commitment is not over," Odierno said.

The end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq comes 7-1/2 years after an invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. However, the country is still stuck in a political deadlock after a national election on March 7.

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 a steady stream of suicide bombings and assassinations.

ASSIST ROLE

The six remaining U.S. brigades in Iraq will move into an advisory role on Sept. 1, training and supporting Iraq's army and police as they fight a weakened but stubborn 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 Sept. 2.

U.S. soldiers are also likely to still come under attack. More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion launched by former U.S. President George W. Bush. For a factbox click on [ID:nLDE67M12I].

At least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have also died, according to various counts, in fierce 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 election would lead to greater prosperity in a country hungry for investment after decades of war and sanctions.

Odierno said he was confident Iraq's political leaders would eventually come to an agreement on forming a government.

Obama has said no U.S. service members will remain in Iraq by Jan. 1, 2012, even though it will be impossible for Iraq to stand up its own air force and be ready to protect its territorial integrity.

Odierno said it would be many years yet before the United States could determine whether its mission in Iraq had been a success or not.

"I think it's three to five years before we know. The reason I say that is it's four years of a new government and then the next election," he said.

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