US stresses military role in Iraq

US troops will still be in combat and taking on Islamist militants in Iraq even as the American military moves to an "advise and assist" role with a smaller force, officials said.

The withdrawal of the last US combat brigade at dawn on Thursday was hailed as a symbolic moment for the controversial American presence in Iraq, more than seven years since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Under cover of darkness, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, crossed into neighbouring Kuwait ahead of the planned declaration of an end to US combat operations in Iraq by an August 31 deadline.

The pullout came two days after a suicide bomber killed 59 people at a Baghdad army recruiting centre in Iraq's deadliest attack this year, sparking concern the country's forces are incapable of handling security on their own.

But while the remaining 50,000 troops will no longer have a formal combat mission after September 1, they will be well-armed and possibly coming under fire as they join in manhunts for Al-Qaeda figures or other extremists.

"I don't think anybody has declared the end of the war as far as I know," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told MSNBC.

"Counter-terrorism will still be part of their mission," said Morrell, referring to the fight against militant networks.

From next month the US mission in Iraq will be called "Operation New Dawn" instead of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- the name given to American operations since the invasion.

The remaining force will operate in six "advise and assist brigades," taking part in operations at the request of Baghdad authorities and playing a supporting role to Iraqi units.

The US troops "will continue to conduct partnered counter-terrorism operations" in an effort "to help Iraqi security forces maintain pressure on the extremist networks and protect the citizens of Iraq," Major Christopher Perrine told AFP.

The brigades are equipped with robots, unmanned aircraft and dog teams to help track militants and roadside bombs, along with experts in intelligence and logistics, he said.

Recent bombings have underscored the threat still posed by Al-Qaeda and other militants in Iraq, even though the Qaeda network has suffered severe setbacks with the deaths of senior leaders and a shortage of cash.

Even as the Pentagon draws down the force in Iraq, US special operations command -- which focuses on counter-terrorist operations -- will stay at the same level of 4,500 troops.

The shift in the US military role has been underway for months, with June 2009 serving as a turning point when Iraqi security forces took the lead in the country's major cities and towns.

"At that point, we were not unilaterally conducting any combat operations anymore," Morrell said.

"So when they have a bad guy they need to go after and they want our assistance doing it, there's a warrant, they ask for our assistance and we go after them together."

He added that US forces will have the right to defend themselves in any situation "should that become necessary."

The US military presence, while dramatically altered, may continue long after the end of 2011, when all American forces are supposed to depart under a security agreement.

Top military leaders in both countries acknowledge Iraq still may need help from the US armed forces after 2011.

"We're obviously open to that discussion," US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week. "But that initiative will have to come from the Iraqis."

Iraq's top military officer told AFP last week that American forces may be needed for another decade.

A future accord with Iraq might include continued air patrols with US F-16s, as officials admit Baghdad's air force is a long way from being able to fend off attacks from fighter jets.

To make up for a scaled back US military force, Washington meanwhile plans to rely on large numbers of private security contractors, US officials said Thursday.

The State Department said it will double the number of contractors it employs in Iraq to about 7,000.

The pullout coincided with Wednesday's arrival of new US ambassador James Jeffrey, who takes up his post amid political deadlock, with no new government yet formed since elections in March.

"The readiness of the Iraqi security troops is quite enough to combat the threat," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. "The plan is going on, irrespective of the political situation."

But there was fierce criticism in Iraq about the pullout, which also came during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when insurgent attacks typically peak.

"This is an irresponsible withdrawal," said Hamid Fadhel, political science professor at Baghdad University.

"There are dangers to do with security of the country, concerns and fears for Iraq's external security, because of the lack of a military that is able to protect the country."

Many Iraqis agreed, voicing doubts about their own security forces.

"It would have been better for the Americans to wait until the Iraqi army and police complete their training and become a truly loyal force," engineer Ali Khalaf, 30, told AFP.