BAGHDAD - The U.S. will reduce its military presence in Iraq by 12,000 troops over the next six months as part of the first major drawdown since President Obama announced his plan to end combat operations in the country next year, U.S. military officials in Baghdad said today.
The announcement came just hours after a suicide bomber on a motorcycle struck a crowd of police recruits outside an interior ministry compound in Baghdad, killing at least 33 people and wounding 61.
Despite that grim reminder of the lingering danger, U.S. officials said the drawdown reflects growing confidence in the security gains in Iraq over the last two years. It also reflects a major shift in priorities for the U.S. military, which is increasingly focused on efforts to arrest the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
The plan would reduce U.S. troop strength by nearly 10% just as Iraq is preparing for nationwide elections in the fall -- a step that would have been unthinkable at the height of the insurgency but was endorsed in this case by top U.S. military officials.
"The time and conditions are right for coalition forces to reduce the number of troops in Iraq," U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a prepared statement.
Successful provincial elections in January "demonstrated the increased capability of the Iraqi army and police to provide security."
In the coming months, Odierno said, "Iraqis will see the number of U.S. forces go down in the cities while more and more Iraqi flags go up at formerly shared security stations."
The plan calls for the number of U.S. Brigade Combat Teams to drop from 14 to 12. Two brigade teams that had been scheduled to redeploy in the next six months will not be replaced. A British brigade will also leave Iraq without being replaced, the final British combat troops that have remained in Iraq.
When the American move is completed, it would reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq to about 128,000 troops, dipping for the first time below the number of troops in the country before then- President Bush ordered the buildup he referred to as the "surge" in 2007.
The schedule for the withdrawal represents a compromise between the 16-month timetable President Obama had advocated during his campaign and a 23-month plan that had been pushed by the military.
Under the compromise, all combat forces would be pulled out of Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, but a residual force of between 35,000 to 50,000 soldiers would remain in place for training and support missions.
The Iraq withdrawals are crucial to the administration's plans to devote more military resources to Afghanistan, as well as limit spending at a time when the government is facing record deficits.
Senior U.S. national security officials are nearing completion of a strategic review of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, a step that Obama has described as an effort "to stabilize a deteriorating situation," one he has implied was neglected by former President Bush.
Seven years after the U.S. invasion, Afghanistan's stability is threatened by a resurgent Taliban insurgency, as well as increasingly frustration within the country with a central government regarded as corrupt and ineffective.
Last month, Obama announced plans to send 17,000 additional U.S. soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan -- deployments that would more than offset the troop reductions in Iraq outlined today.
Despite the latest suicide bombing, U.S. military spokesman Maj Gen David Perkins said violence had now dropped to its lowest level since the summer of 2003, just months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.. Last month, 221 civilians were killed, including 60 people killed during a major Shiite religious festival.
Even with the dramatic turnaround, bombings and assassinations still occur almost daily around the country, and Iraqi defense ministry spokesman Mohamed Askari said it was impossible to fully stop the violence.
"Definitely the security situation is improving but such terrorist thoughts are not easy to eliminate it. There are breaches. They want to affect the situation,"Askari told Arabiya satellite news channel. He vowed more precautions would be taken around recruiting centers, where large crowds are an appealing target for armed groups.
Haidar Nouri, 22, was one of the young men in line this morning, waiting by blast walls at the edge of Palestine Street, a main road adjacent to the interior ministry compound. Nouri, from eastern Baghdad's Baladiyat neighborhood, said he was desperate for work, tired of odd jobs and menial labor. Police lined his group up in four lines and the men thought they were about to go inside.
"While we were standing there, I heard someone scream, 'Stop! Stop!' Then I heard two shots and I felt something throw the crowd down. I felt nothing after that. [Then] I found myself in the hospital," Nouri said.
Shrapnel was lodged in his neck, in a hand and in one of his shoulders, and his thigh was also burned, he said.
"I saw some of my fellow recruits lost their hands and others their legs. The hospital halls are crowded with the wounded," he said. "I hoped to serve my country when I got this job, and that God would bless me with money but this is what I got."
At the nearby oil ministry, employee Abbas Alaa said he heard the explosion and the force of the blast shook his nearby building. "I got out and I was close to the incident site. We saw wounded people. I smelled burning flesh and saw pools of blood," he recounted "The place was in total chaos."
Staff writers Saif Hameed and Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.