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US troops in Iraq now below 50,000

The number of US troops in Iraq has fallen below 50,000 for the first time since the 2003 US-led invasion and ahead of the end-of-the-month deadline mandated by President Barack Obama, the American military said.

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

"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," a US military statement read.

"US military forces will transition to Operation New Dawn, effective September 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," Lt Col Owen said.

The drop in troop levels signifies an important step for President 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 US and Iraq, all American troops must be out of Iraq by the end of next year.

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 counter-terrorism operations, if US 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.

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