BAGHDAD — The U.S. military announced Sunday that 12,000 American soldiers would withdraw from Iraq by September, marking the first step in the Obama administration's plan to pull U.S. combat forces out of the country by August 2010.
In setting the deadline last month, President Obama declared that the United States would restrict itself to achievable goals before departing. The timing of Sunday's announcement, hours before a suicide bomber killed 28 people in Baghdad, underscored that Iraq is likely to remain dangerous, turbulent and vulnerable to spectacular acts of bloodshed during an American withdrawal.
Under the administration's plan, major reductions in the more than 130,000 troops in Iraq will be postponed until after elections in December to choose a new parliament, a vote that nearly everyone in the country sees as a potential watershed moment. A U.S.-Iraqi agreement negotiated last year requires all U.S. troops to depart by the end of 2011, a deadline that Iraqi officials reiterated Sunday.
Iraq "has no intention to accept the presence of any foreign troops or bases after 2011," said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman.
But long before then, the posture of the U.S. military will have changed dramatically. Under the U.S.-Iraqi agreement, American troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June, and Maj. Gen. David Perkins said two combat brigades scheduled to leave by September would not be replaced. That would reduce the number of combat brigades in the country from 14 to 12.
An F-16 squadron, along with some support units, also will depart, as will the remaining 4,000 British soldiers, who are based in southern Iraq.
At their peak, U.S. troops numbered more than 165,000. As many as 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq even after combat troops leave to conduct training and what officials describe as counterterrorism operations.
"We are by no means complacent," Perkins, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in announcing the withdrawal. "We know that al-Qaida, although greatly reduced in capability and numbers, still is desperate to maintain relevance here."
Perkins said remaining troops would be redeployed around the country. Although attacks have diminished, parts of Iraq remain remarkably violent.
An insurgency still rages in the northern city of Mosul, along one of the country's ethnic fault lines. Diyala Province, with its mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs, along with Kurds, has remained dangerous, despite repeated Iraqi and U.S. offensives to quell fighting there.
"We will not leave any seams in regards to security," Perkins said. "We know how to do this. This is not the first time we've reduced our forces."
Even Iraqis adamant about ending the American presence, which began when the United States invaded and occupied the country in April 2003, worry that violence may worsen amid the withdrawal. Echoing a view often repeated by the military, Perkins suggested that high-profile attacks were a sign of desperation after the success of January's elections and the negotiation of the U.S.-Iraqi agreement.