US on track to end Iraq combat mission
Baghdad, August 19, 2010
The US military is holding steady in its aim to reduce troop numbers in Iraq to 50,000 by August 31, when the 7-1/2 year US combat mission launched by former President George W Bush comes to an official close.
The last US brigade officially classed as a combat unit formally handed over responsibilities to its Iraqi counterparts on August 7, but US troops have been steadily flowing out of the country on transport aircraft and by road for a year.
'My personal experience is it was worth it. We paid a huge cost,' said Staff Sergeant Christopher Hush from the First Battalion of the 116th Infantry regiment which pulled out to Kuwait earlier this week.
US media said on Wednesday the last US combat troops had left Iraq, but US officials clarified there were still 56,000 US soldiers in Iraq, so the reduction to 50,000 non-combat troops by September 1 promised by President Barack Obama still has a some way to go.
There will actually be little change on the ground in the US military mission in Iraq come September 1 as most US military units began switching their focus to training and assisting Iraqi troops and police more than a year ago when they pulled out of Iraqi urban centres on June 30, 2009.
Much of the US war material and many of the soldiers departing Iraq are being redeployed to Afghanistan, where Nato forces are fighting a resurgent Taliban.
The end of the US combat mission in Iraq will mark a milestone in the war that began in 2003 with the invasion to topple Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, whose long rule was marked by an eight-year war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and economic decline and diplomatic isolation.
More than 4,400 US soldiers have been killed since the invasion, while up to 106,071 Iraqi civilians also died in fierce warfare unleashed between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Muslims who dominated the country under Saddam.
Overall violence has fallen sharply since the height of the sectarian slaughter in 2006/07, when US troop numbers topped out at around 170,000. But a stubborn Sunni Islamist-led insurgency continues to carry out devastating attacks and Iraq remains a fragile place.
Its leaders have not resolved a number of politically explosive issues. They have not been able to form a new government five months after a national election that produced no outright winner, and tensions have been stoked by a steady stream of suicide bombings and other attacks by insurgents trying to exploit the political vacuum ahead of the end of the US combat mission. - Reuters