US troops at lowest level since ’03 invasion of Iraq

With pullout near, fewer than 100,000 remain

By Chelsea J. Carter
Associated Press / February 17, 2010

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BAGHDAD - The number of American soldiers in Iraq has dropped below 100,000 for the first time since the 2003 US-led invasion in a clear signal the United States is wrapping up its nearly seven-year war to meet a deadline for leaving the country, the US military said yesterday.

The troop reduction comes at a critical time in Iraq as Washington questions the shaky democracy’s ability to maintain security in the tense period surrounding March 7 parliamentary elections. Those concerns have only grown with a decision by a vetting committee to bar hundreds of candidates from running because of suspected ties to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Ba’ath Party.

The US military plans on maintaining its current 98,000 boots on the ground in Iraq through the elections, First Lieutenant Elizabeth Feste, an army spokeswoman in Baghdad, said.

That’s in line with what General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, has said would remain in place until at least 60 days after the election - a period during which he believes Iraq’s new government will be at its most vulnerable.

International observers fear that tension between the Shi’ite-dominated government and minority Sunnis may spill into the streets, reigniting sectarian violence that could threaten the planned US withdrawal.

President Obama has ordered all but 50,000 troops to leave Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, with the remainder pulling out by the end of next year under an Iraqi-American security agreement.

“The withdrawal pace remains on target for about 50,000 at the end of August 2010,’’ Feste said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is running for reelection on a campaign promise to make Iraq independent from US military help. At a campaign rally yesterday, he signaled that the United States cannot expect to use Iraq as a launching pad for military action in the Middle East.

He also cited a strong desire to improve relations with nations bordering Iraq that were seen as enemies during Saddam Hussein’s regime. Maliki’s comments appeared to be directed at Iran, although he did not mention any countries by name.

“We also confirm to all our neighboring and friendly countries that our constitution stipulates to not let the Iraqi territories be a springboard to harm security and interests of any state,’’ Maliki told supporters at a Baghdad hotel.

A senior US military official said yesterday that he expected the number of forces in the country by 2011 to be whittled down to between 20,000 and 30,000, with those remaining forces out by the end of 2011.

Troop levels have fluctuated dramatically throughout the nearly seven-year war, shifts that generally reflected a change in US strategy.

During the height of the invasion in May 2003, about 150,000 US forces were in Iraq. But that number quickly dropped off by January 2004, with American troops moving from a combat to occupation role.

But by October 2005, the number climbed back up to 160,000 as the insurgency took hold in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. At the peak of the troop buildup in October 2007, there were about 170,000 troops on the ground as part of a counterinsurgency strategy known as the “surge.’’

Though the US military has heavily touted the decline in overall violence and the success of Iraq’s security as the reason for its withdrawal, it also has repeatedly warned about an increase in attacks before the election.