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U.S. To Cut Iraq Troops By 12,000 Within Six Months

There are now some 140,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq

There are now some 140,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States will reduce the number of troops in Iraq by around 12,000 in the next six months, the U.S. military has said, a step in President Barack Obama's plan to end combat operations in August 2010.

"Two brigade combat teams who were scheduled to redeploy in the next six months, along with enabling forces such as logistics, engineers, and intelligence, will not be replaced," the U.S. military said in a statement on March 8.

Reducing the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq from 14 to 12 would cut the number of American troops, currently around 140,000, by 12,000, military officials said.

Six years after the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, Obama plans to pull all combat troops out of Iraq by August 31, 2010, leaving 35,000 to 50,000 support and training troops as Washington shifts its military focus to Afghanistan.

Last month, Obama ordered 17,000 extra troops to Afghanistan to tackle a growing insurgency there.

Under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact negotiated by former President George W. Bush that took effect on January 1, the United States must withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Major-General David Perkins, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, told a news conference that 4,000 British troops would also depart Iraq in the coming months.

The sectarian and insurgent violence that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,500 foreign troops since 2003 has fallen off sharply, but insurgents continue to stage regular attacks.

Just hours before U.S. officials announced the troop reduction plans, a suicide bomber killed 28 people as recruits gathered at a Baghdad police academy, the first large-scale attack in the capital in almost a month.

Continuing violence raises questions about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take charge of security just a few months before better equipped and better trained U.S. combat forces are due to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

"We will reposition assets through the country...based on the threat level," Perkins said.

U.S. forces across Iraq are increasingly focused on training local forces, whose ranks have swelled by hundreds of thousands since they were disbanded by U.S. officials in 2003.

While violence has dropped, Iraq still faces grave threats to its stability, including deep divisions over power and resources that have often pitted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against political rivals.

Such rifts could be exacerbated as Iraq gears up for national elections scheduled for December.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested the United States should be prepared to maintain a "modest" military presence to assist Iraqi forces beyond 2011 if asked to do so by Iraq's government.

But Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, speaking alongside U.S. officials on Sunday, appeared to rule out that possibility. "The Iraqi government has no intention to accept the presence of foreign troops after 2011," he said.