US troop level in Iraq under 50,000
Drawdown beats Obama deadline
BAGHDAD — The number of US troops in Iraq has fallen below 50,000 for the first time since the 2003 US-led invasion and ahead of the end-of-the-month deadline President Obama mandated, the American military said in a statement yesterday.
The number is a watershed in the more than seven years that the United States has been at war in Iraq. Under Obama’s plan, American forces will no longer conduct combat operations but are instead to focus on training Iraqi troops.
“We’ve met our goal,’’ General Ray Odierno, the commanding general in Iraq, told reporters yesterday. “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.’’
Odierno said that going forward, the focus will be on economic, political, cultural, and technological developments as opposed to just the military relationship.
There are currently 49,700 troops in Iraq, and that number will remain level through next summer, Odierno said.
John Brennan, White House counterterrorism chief, hailed the troop drawdown as a “truly remarkable achievement.’’ He acknowledged persistent terrorist attacks in Iraq but said the violence is at a reduced level. Vice President Joe Biden called the troop reduction a “remarkable milestone.’’
The drawdown is occurring at a fragile moment in Iraq’s history, when many are wondering whether the country’s tenuous security and democracy gains will backslide.
The country has gone almost half a year without a new government, following the March 7 parliamentary elections. The elections failed to produce a clear winner to lead Iraq as American forces withdraw, and frequent attacks by insurgents are raising doubts about the ability of Iraqi forces to protect the country in the absence of American backup.
Underscoring the threat to Iraq’s stability amid the political vacuum, a car bomber last night killed three people and injured seven at a police checkpoint in Baqouba, a former insurgency stronghold 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, said Major Ghalib al-Karkhi, Diyala police command spokesman. Two of those killed were police officers.
Additionally, an Al Qaeda in Iraq front group announced it has targeted Iraqi judges in its campaign to reignite sectarian strife. The judges are on Al Qaeda’s hit list because of handing death sentences to Sunnis imprisoned in Shi’ite prisons, the group said.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law Coalition garnered 89 seats in the election, has battled to retain his office. A Sunni-backed coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a Shi’ite, won 91 seats in the balloting. But in Iraq’s deeply fragmented political system that adheres closely to sectarian politics, neither side has been able to pull together a majority coalition.