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Last US combat brigade leaves Iraq
by Prashant Rao Prashant Rao Thu Aug 19, 4:14 pm ET
BAGHDAD (AFP) – The last US combat brigade pulled out of Iraq at dawn on Thursday, a key milestone in the withdrawal of American forces more than seven years after the US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Under cover of darkness, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, crossed into neighbouring Kuwait ahead of the planned declaration of an end to US combat operations in Iraq by an August 31 deadline.
The pullout came two days after a suicide bomber killed 59 people at a Baghdad army recruiting centre in Iraq's deadliest attack this year, sparking concern the country's forces are incapable of handling security on their own.
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Bloom told AFP the last members of the brigade had entered Kuwait "at about 6:00 am this morning."
"They have a few more days to clean the equipment, prepare the equipment, get it ready for shipment and then they'll fly out (to the United States)."
It took two days for 360 vehicles and 1,200 soldiers to travel from Camp Liberty on Baghdad's outskirts and Camp Taji north of the capital, through the Shiite south and into the Gulf emirate, Bloom said.
The rest of the 4,000-strong brigade left by air.
Kuwait, which hosts several American military camps in its northern desert close to the border, as well as a naval base, was used as the springboard for the 2003 invasion.
About 52,000 US soldiers remain in Iraq, with that figure set to drop to 50,000 by September 1, less than a third of the peak level during the 2007 "surge."
From next month the US mission in Iraq will be called "Operation New Dawn" instead of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- the name given to American operations since the invasion.
To fill the gap left by departing troops, the US State Department will more than double the number of security contractors it employs in Iraq to around 7,000, the New York Times reported.
Citing unnamed administration officials, it said private contractors would operate radar to warn of enemy fire, hunt for roadside bombs and fly surveillance drones.
The pullout coincided with Wednesday's arrival of new US ambassador James Jeffrey, who takes up his post amid political deadlock, with no new government yet formed since elections in March.
It also came during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when insurgent attacks typically peak.
A spike in violence in July, Iraq's deadliest month since 2008, and Tuesday's suicide attack blamed on Al-Qaeda have sparked disquiet over the readiness of Iraq's own forces.
"This is an irresponsible withdrawal," said Hamid Fadhel, political science professor at Baghdad University.
"There are dangers to do with security of the country, concerns and fears for Iraq's external security, because of the lack of a military that is able to protect the country."
Many Iraqis agreed, voicing doubts about their own security forces.
"It would have been better for the Americans to wait until the Iraqi army and police complete their training and become a truly loyal force," engineer Ali Khalaf, 30, told AFP.
While US officers insist their Iraqi counterparts are up to the task, the country's top military officer told AFP last week that American forces may be needed in the conflict-wracked nation for another decade.
That seems unlikely, however. The White House has repeatedly insisted that the withdrawal schedule, which will see the last US soldier depart at the end of next year, remains on track.
"The readiness of the Iraqi security troops is quite enough to combat the threat," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. "The plan is going on, irrespective of the political situation."
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley described the end of combat operations a "historic moment," but stressed America's long-term commitment to Iraq.
"This is not the end of something," he told MSNBC. It's a transition to something different."
In a letter dated August 18 posted on the White House website, President Barack Obama hailed the end of US combat operations but made no mention of the final combat troops leaving.
Saddam Hussein's former deputy Tareq Aziz, however, said in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper earlier this month that Obama was "leaving Iraq to the wolves."