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The U.S. military is on track to cut numbers in Iraq to 50,000 by end August, when the 7-1/2-year combat mission launched by former President George W. Bush ends and operations switch to assisting Iraq’s armed forces.

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the last brigade mainly focused on combat, handed over to Iraqi forces on August 7 and pulls out this week. Its 100-strong “trail party” will leave in three days after turning over facilities.

Another 6,000 U.S. soldiers still need to leave by transport aircraft or by road before August 31 to reach the 50,000 figure President Barack Obama promised U.S. voters would be left ahead of a total withdrawal by the end of 2011.

“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 headed to Kuwait earlier this week.

There will be little actual change on the ground come September 1 when all six brigades left in Iraq officially become “Advise and Assist” units, said Major General Stephen Lanza, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

Most U.S. military units began switching their focus to training and assisting Iraqi troops and police over a year ago when they pulled out of Iraqi towns and cities on June 30, 2009.

U.S. forces have not been legally able to conduct unilateral operations in Iraq since a bilateral security agreement came into force in January 2009, and the U.S. military began a steady cut in troop numbers, from a peak of 176,000 soldiers.

Source: Michael Christie for Reuters.

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