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U.S. military in Iraq drops to 98,000, lowest since 2003

BAGHDAD - The number of American soldiers in Iraq has dropped below 100,000 for the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion in a clear signal the United States is wrapping up its nearly seven-year war to meet a deadline for leaving the country, the U.S. military said yesterday.

The troop reduction comes at a critical time in Iraq as Washington questions the shaky democracy's ability to maintain security in the tense period surrounding March 7 parliamentary elections. Those concerns have only grown with a decision by a vetting committee to bar hundreds of candidates from running because of suspected ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party.

The U.S. military plans to maintain its current 98,000 on the ground in Iraq through the elections, 1st Lt. Elizabeth Feste, an army spokeswoman in Baghdad, told The Associated Press.

That's in line with what Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said would remain in place until at least 60 days after the election - a period during which he believes Iraq's new government will be at its most vulnerable.

International observers fear that tension between the Shia-dominated government and minority Sunnis may spill into the streets, reigniting sectarian violence that could threaten the planned U.S. withdrawal.

President Barack Obama has ordered all but 50,000 troops to leave Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, with the remainder pulling out by the end of next year under an Iraqi-American security agreement.

"The withdrawal pace remains on target for about 50,000 at the end of August 2010," Feste said.

A senior U.S. military official said yesterday he expected the number of forces in the country by 2011 to be whittled down to between 20,000 and 30,000, with those remaining forces out by the end of 2011.

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