BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military is on track to cut numbers in Iraq to 50,000 by end August, when the 7-1/2-year combat mission launched by former President George W. Bush ends and operations switch to assisting Iraq’s armed forces.
The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the last brigade mainly focused on combat, handed over to Iraqi forces on August 7 and pulls out this week. Its 100-strong “trail party” will leave in three days after turning over facilities.
Another 6,000 U.S. soldiers still need to leave by transport aircraft or by road before August 31 to reach the 50,000 figure President Barack Obama promised U.S. voters would be left ahead of a total withdrawal by the end of 2011.
“My personal experience is it was worth it. We paid a huge cost,” said Staff Sergeant Christopher Hush from the First Battalion of the 116th Infantry regiment which headed to Kuwait earlier this week.
There will be little actual change on the ground come September 1 when all six brigades left in Iraq officially become “Advise and Assist” units, said Major General Stephen Lanza, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.
Most U.S. military units began switching their focus to training and assisting Iraqi troops and police over a year ago when they pulled out of Iraqi towns and cities on June 30, 2009.
U.S. forces have not been legally able to conduct unilateral operations in Iraq since a bilateral security agreement came into force in January 2009, and the U.S. military began a steady cut in troop numbers, from a peak of 176,000 soldiers.
“Every soldier is a combat soldier. It’s about the change of mission. It doesn’t change who we are or what we do,” Lanza said. “You won’t see this big change on 2 September.”
The end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq will still be a milestone in the war that began in 2003 with the invasion to topple Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, whose long rule was marked by an eight-year war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and economic decline and diplomatic isolation.
More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed, while at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians also died, according to various counts, in fierce warfare unleashed between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunnis who dominated the country under Saddam.
Overall violence has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian slaughter in 2006/07. But Sunni Islamist-led insurgents still carry out attacks and Iraq is a fragile place.
Its leaders have not resolved a number of politically explosive issues, such as tensions between majority Arabs and minority Kurds, and reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Nor have they been able to form a new government five months after a national election that produced no outright winner.
Tensions have been stoked by a steady stream of suicide bombings and other attacks by insurgents trying to exploit the political vacuum ahead of the end of the U.S. combat mission.
Nevertheless, Iraq’s tentative experiment with U.S.-imposed democracy holds the potential to upset political power balances throughout a region accustomed to autocratic governance.
Much of the U.S. war materiel and many of the soldiers leaving Iraq are being redeployed in Afghanistan, where NATO forces are fighting a resurgent Taliban. The 50,000-strong force left in Iraq will remain formidable — almost twice the size of the U.S. deployment on the Korean peninsula.
Obama has said not a single U.S. service member will remain in Iraq come January 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 on its own by then.
Yet the U.S. public is weary of war, and any decision to remain longer in Iraq would likely be highly controversial.
The war in Iraq has gone on longer than the U.S. Civil War, World War One and World War Two.
Additional reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Jon Hemming