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.
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.