US troops in Iraq fall below 50,000

"We are continuing to be committed to Iraq," general says as military beats withdrawal deadline set by President Obama by one week.

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BAGHDAD // The US military announced yesterday it now has fewer than 50,000 soldiers in Iraq, its lowest troop level here since the 2003 invasion. Officials said they had reduced their force strength to 49,700, one week before a deadline set by the US president, Barack Obama. "We've met our goal," said Gen Ray Odierno, the commanding US general in Iraq. "But the story is not about 50,000. The story is that we are continuing to be committed to Iraq. But our commitment is going to change."

From September 1, Operation Iraqi Freedom, as Washington dubbed the invasion and the war that followed, will end. It will be replaced with Operation New Dawn, which will focus on training and support for Iraqi forces. Despite that, US soldiers will still be taking part in military operations, including joint patrols in Ninewah, Diyala and Kirkuk with Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga units. US special forces are also expected to take part in anti-insurgency operations alongside their Iraqi counterparts. Senior officers have also left open the possibility of a major US return to combat in Iraq, if there is a "collapse" in the security situation, something Gen Odierno has said he does not expect. Under an agreement between Baghdad and Washington, all US troops must be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011. At its peak, the US military had 170,000 soldiers in Iraq during the troop surge of 2007.