US troops in Iraq 'below 50,000' ahead of August target

A US soldier from the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, carries his bag as he prepares to pull out from Iraq to Kuwait, at Tallil Air Base near Nassiriya, on 15 August 2010. All US troops must be out of Iraq by the end of next year

The number of US troops in Iraq has fallen below 50,000, ahead of a 31 August deadline when US combat operations are due to end, the US military has said.

After taking office last year, US President Barack Obama set the August deadline to cut numbers below 50,000.

Last week, the last US combat brigade left the country, seven years after the US-led invasion began.

Under a US-Iraq deal, all US troops must pull out by the end of 2011.

"Today, in line with President 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.

This number of US troops will remain until the end of 2011 to advise Iraqi forces and protect US interests.

They will be armed, but will only use their weapons in self-defence or at the request of the Iraqi government, and will work on training Iraqi troops and helping with counter-terrorism operations, the US military said.

From 1 September, US troops will operate under Operation New Dawn instead of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

There have been as many as 165,000 US troops in Iraq; it was down to 120,000 in January this year, and they have been leaving mostly by the plane-load since then, reports the BBC's Hugh Sykes in Baghdad.

The remaining troops will be part of what the Americans have termed AABs (Advise and Assist Brigades), but to suggest that they are non-combat forces is misleading, our correspondent adds.

They are fully armed and can switch to combat immediately if asked to do so by the Iraqis. They can also act alone in self-defence without Iraqi permission.

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