msnbc.com news services
updated 8/24/2010 4:58:35 AM ET 2010-08-24T08:58:35

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 Tuesday.

The number is a watershed — American forces will no longer conduct combat operations in the country 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.

The military did not give an exact number of how many troops are currently in the country. Lt. Col. Bob Owen, an American public relations official, said that the military would not comment on the exact figures.

"The important thing here is that we have reached the President's directive and that our commitment to Iraq continues," Owen said.

Significant step
The drop in troop levels signify an important step for Obama, who was elected partially on a platform of promising to end the war. After taking office he announced a plan to cease combat operations and drop the number of troops in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of August 2010.

Under an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, all American troops must be out of Iraq by the end of next year. The troops now remaining in the country will mainly be responsible for training Iraqi security forces.

More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, launched by former President George W. Bush, that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Up to 106,071 Iraqi civilians also died in fierce warfare unleashed between majority Shiites and the minority Sunni Muslims who dominated the country under Saddam.

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which was officially designated at the last combat unit to leave Iraq, drove out last week in their eight-wheeled Strykers .

However, in an indication of how difficult it is to firmly draw a line between what is considered combat and what is not, the American military will still be taking part in such missions as counterterrorism operations, if U.S. help is requested by the Iraqis.

Also, the Americans will continue to have the right to defend themselves and their military facilities — all actions that could still bring American troops into harm's way.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Biden credits U.S. troops for drawdown in Iraq

Photos: Leaving Iraq

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  1. U.S. Army Stryker armored vehicles cross the border from Iraq into Kuwait on Wednesday, Aug. 18. The U.S. Army's 4th Stryker Brigade is the last combat unit to leave Iraq as part of the drawdown of U.S. forces. President Barack Obama had set a goal of reducing the number of American troops in Iraq to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A U.S. soldier waves from his Stryker armored vehicle after crossing the border into Kuwait. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A soldier dismantles a machine gun mounted on his Stryker immediately after crossing the border on Aug. 16. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. U.S. Army soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade race toward the border on Aug. 18. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Stryker armored vehicles through southern Iraq en route to Kuwait on Aug. 15. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Soldiers from C Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division gather before the convoy to Kuwait. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A member of the U.S. Army's 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, carries an American flag after a departure ceremony at Forward Operating Base Constitution in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, on Aug. 7. (Moises Saman / The New York Times via Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division band plays during a ceremony marking the formal withdrawal from the last checkpoints they helped staff in the Green Zone of Baghdad on June 1. (Holly Pickett / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. U.S. military Humvees are ready to be shipped out of Iraq at a staging yard at Camp Victory on July 6 in Baghdad. Everything from helicopters to printer cartridges are being wrapped and stamped and shipped out of Iraq in one of the most monumental withdrawal operations the American military has ever carried out. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Workers sort through broken computer equipment that will be destroyed at a demilitarizing facility for unusable, un-transportable U.S. military equipment at Camp Victory on June 24 in Baghdad. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Workers operate machinery that destroys damaged concrete blast walls at the U.S. Joint Base Balad, north of Baghdad, on July 3. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, clear their weapons before boarding a military aircraft in Baghdad, as they begin their journey home on Aug. 13. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, board a military aircraft in Baghdad on Aug 13. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Air Force airman talks on a radio as Army soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division prepare to board a military aircraft in Baghdad on Aug 13. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, are seen on board a military aircraft in Baghdad on Aug. 13, as they begin their journey home. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. U.S. Army soldiers carry the flag-draped transfer case containing the remains of a U.S. soldier out of a C-17 during a dignified transfer on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base on Aug. 17 in Dover, Del. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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