By Michael Sheridan
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
50,000 and falling.
The military reports that the number of United States troops in Iraq is now at its lowest since the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein began in 2003.
The seven-year-low comes ahead of a deadline set by President Obama to drawdown troop numbers by the end of August.
"Today, in line with President Obama's direction and as part of the responsible drawdown of forces, U.S. military force levels in Iraq are below 50,000," the military said in a statement.
"U.S. military forces will transition to Operation New Dawn, effective Sept. 1, 2010," it added, referring to the change in operation name from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
U.S. forces will "continue to advise, train and assist the Iraqi Security Forces" until December 2011, the statement said.
According to Gen. Ray Odierno, 49,700 troops currently remain in Iraq, a number which is expected to be maintained until next summer.
Odierno, however, warned over the weekend that it is possible American troops could remain in Iraq well beyond 2011.
"If the government of Iraq requests some technical assistance in fielding systems that allow them to continue to protect themselves, some external threats, we could be here," he told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.
"If that's what we're talking about, potentially, we could be [in Iraq] beyond 2011," Odierno said
The last American combat troops left Iraq last week, ending the combat phase of the Iraq war started by former President George W. Bush.
"We are ending the war ... but we are not ending our work in Iraq," State Dept. spokesman P.J. Crowley told MSNBC.
While American military directs its attention towards Afghanistan, some in Iraq fear the country is not yet ready to maintain peace on its own.
Earlier this month, Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari expressed concern that his military forces would not be ready to maintain order until 2020.
Since 2003, 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed, along with 106,071 Iraqi civilians. Before troops began to pull out of Iraq, the number of United States soldiers in the Middle East nation peaked at 176,000.
Obama has said he would cut troops to 50,000 by Aug. 31 before a total withdrawal by the end of 2011. Most U.S. military units began focusing chiefly on training and assisting Iraqi troops and police in 2009.