Last US combat troops leave Iraq
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The last United States combat brigade is pulling out of Iraq and has crossed into Kuwait almost seven and a half years after the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. But the US military says there are still several thousand more US troops in Iraq that have to go before the drawdown was complete.
The pullout comes just one day after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded army recruitment center in Baghdad killing 59 people, as violence coinciding with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan raged across Iraq.
Major General Stephen Lanza, the US military spokesman, said there were still nearly 56,000 US troops in Iraq, but the number would fall to 50,000 by the end of the month.
"And we'll continue to go through our responsible drawdown to meet that drawdown by 1 September. It is about a transition to a change of mission, going from combat operations to stability operations," he said.
RFI correspondent Patrick Cockburn stressed the significance of the withdawal.
"This really is a very important milestone," he said.
In a letter dated 18 August and posted on the White House website, President Barack Obama also hailed the end of combat operations but made no mention of the final combat troops leaving.
"Shortly after taking office, I put forward a plan to end the war in Iraq responsibly," the letter said.
"Today, I'm pleased to report that - thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians in Iraq - our combat mission will end this month, and we will complete a substantial drawdown of our troops."
All US troops are supposed to leave the country by the end of next year, according to the terms of a bilateral security pact, and Obama has insisted the ongoing withdrawal is on schedule and will not be altered.
The US troop pullouts have come despite warnings from senior Iraqi politicians and officers about the dangers of an early exit given the security situation and political uncertainty.
Iraq's top military officer said last week at a defense ministry conference in Baghdad that American forces may be needed in the conflict-wracked nation for a further decade.
"At this point, the withdrawal is going well because they are still here," Lieutenant General Babaker Zerbari said.
"But the problem will start after 2011 - the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011. If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020."
RFI correspondent, Patrick Cockburn, said that Zibari's comments needed to be seen in context.
"General Zerbari is a leading Kurdish General who became chief of staff the Iraqi army. The Kurdish position is that they would like the Americans to stay forever, because they help the Kurds remain highly autonomous and they are closely allied to the government," he said.
"But this isn’t generally the view of the Iraqi government," he added. "The Iraqi Prime Minister, in fact, immediately after said the reverse of what General Zerbari said."
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