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Number of US troops in Iraq falls below 50,000

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has fallen below 50,000 for the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and ahead of the end-of-the-month deadline mandated by President Barack Obama, the American military said in a statement today.

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 train Iraqi troops and help with counterterrorism operations -- if asked for by the Iraqis.

"Today, in line with President Obama's direction and as part of the responsible drawdown of forces, U.S. military force levels in Iraq are below 50,000," the statement read.

"U.S. military forces will transition to Operation New Dawn, effective Sept. 1, 2010," it added, referring to the change in operation name from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the commanding general in Iraq, told reporters today that 49,700 troops are currently in Iraq and that the number would remain level through next summer.

The drawdown comes at a fragile moment in Iraq's history when many are wondering whether the country's tenuous security and democracy gains are at risk of backsliding. 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.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law Coalition garnered 89 seats in the election, has been battling to retain his office. A Sunni-backed coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, who is Shiite, won 91 seats in the balloting. But in Iraq's deeply fragmented political system that still adheres closely to sectarian politics, neither side has been able to pull together a majority coalition.

The political stalemate shows no signs of abating before Sept. 1, when Odierno will officially hand over responsibilities to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III.

The U.S. troop presence in Iraq has fluctuated over the years, reaching a high of nearly 170,000 troops in 2007 as part of the surge of forces intended to combat the insurgency and then slowly tapering off beginning in late 2008.

More than 4,400 American troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, although troop deaths tapered off significantly after the U.S. pulled back from the cities in June 2009, in line with an Iraq-U.S. agreement governing American troop presence in the country.