The number of US troops in Iraq fell below 50,000 yesterday ahead of a declaration of an end to combat operations next week, a key milestone seven years on from the invasion that ousted former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
“Today, in line with [US] President [Barack] Obama’s direction and as part of the responsible drawdown of forces, US military force levels in Iraq are below 50,000,” the US military said in a statement. “US military forces will transition to Operation New Dawn effective Sept. 1, 2010.”
Shortly after coming into office last year, Obama pledged that the US would end combat operations in Iraq by the end of this month, bringing “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to an end, at which point troop figures would drop below 50,000.
The current US troop level here is now less than a third of the peak figure of around 170,000 during “the surge” of 2007.
The US military has withdrawn tens of thousands of soldiers from the country in recent months, and the last US unit designated as a “combat brigade” left Iraq and crossed into Kuwait on Thursday.
All remaining US brigades in Iraq are now labeled “advise and assist” brigades, as part of US plans to help train and build up Iraqi forces before a complete withdrawal, which is due at the end of next year.
A surge of violence in the past two months, however, has sparked concern that local forces are not yet ready to take over sole responsibility for the country’s security.
The top US commander in Iraq, meanwhile, admitted on Sunday that a “complete failure” of Iraqi security forces could oblige the US to resume combat operations, but said this was an unlikely scenario.
General Ray Odierno told CNN that the ability of the Iraqi police and army to keep a lid on the violence was improving, and added that security advances meant the country was on target to be able to handle its own security after next year, when the last remaining US troops are due to be withdrawn.
“My assessment today is they will be [ready],” Odierno said, speaking from Baghdad, but added that the US may be forced to resume combat operations “if, for example, you had a complete failure of the [Iraqi] security forces ... If you had some political divisions within the political forces that caused them to fracture, but we don’t see that happening.”
Meanwhile, two Iraqi judges were killed last week in Baghdad, an official said yesterday, in a spate of attacks claimed by al-Qaeda, which says it was avenging death sentences being handed down to Sunnis in Shiite prisons.
An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one judge was killed in Utayfiyah by silenced pistol on Tuesday last week, while another was murdered a day later by a roadside bomb in Al-Amriyah.
Three others were wounded in Baghdad over a three-day period from Tuesday to Thursday last week, including the head of the Iraqi Appeals Court Chief Judge Kamal Jabir Bandar, by roadside bombs and drive-by shootings.
Also on Tuesday last week, four judges in Diyala Province were wounded in a bomb attack, while several judges travelling in two cars in Mosul were hit by two roadside bombs on the same day, though none were wounded.
The Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi front, said in a statement posted on Islamist forums on Monday that it was behind the attacks, warning that “fighters will not remain idle as Sunni Muslims are sentenced to death and killed in Shiite prisons.”