Two weeks ahead of a schedule set by President Barack Obama, the last large U.S. combat brigade has left Iraq. Pentagon officials stress that some American combat forces remain in the country ahead of an August 31st date to formally transition the U.S. presence to an advisory and training operation.
News agencies and television networks - some with reporters embedded with departing troops - confirmed the withdrawal of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which crossed into Kuwait at the Khabari border crossing.
The departure came two weeks ahead of the August 31st deadline set by President Obama for formally ending combat operations, and seven years and five months after the U.S. and coalition forces invaded Iraq.
Word of the Stryker brigade departure came at the end of an otherwise quiet news day in which President Obama concluded a cross country trip focused on the American economy and supporting Democratic political candidates.
There was no public statement by the president as he arrived back from his trip. A senior administration official was quoted as saying that, although combat forces had drawn down to 50,000, the formal U.S. mission would still change on August 31.
A Pentagon spokesman said that some U.S. combat forces remained in Iraq, and that combat operations are still scheduled to formally end at the end of the month. Officials have also emphasized that U.S. forces remaining after August 31 will still be capable of responding to military threats.
In recent weeks President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others spoke in detail about the changing American role, all stressing the ongoing U.S. commitment to Iraq.
The coming formal transition will fulfill a key pledge President Obama made to bring an end to Operation Iraqi Freedom that began under Republican President George W. Bush.
Under a bilateral agreement with Iraq's government, all U.S. fighting troops must be out of the country by the end of 2011. The 50,000 that remain will be engaged in training Iraqi forces, counter-terrorism operations, and protecting U.S. diplomatic and other personnel.
In remarks to disabled American war veterans a few weeks ago, President Obama praised the sacrifices of American forces, saying they helped Iraqis build their political system and defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.
At the same time, Mr. Obama said Americans have not seen the end of sacrifices in Iraq, noting that terrorists continue to try to derail the progress Iraqis have made.
More than 4,200 U.S. servicemen and women lost their lives during Operation Iraqi Freedom, with more than 30,000 others wounded.
Although President Obama and American officials have pointed to an overall reduction in violence in Iraq, there has been an upturn in violence in recent weeks, with bomb attacks, including one this week by a suicide bomber that killed dozens of Iraqis standing in line at an army recruiting station.