US to withdraw 12,000 troops by autumn

Iraq and the United States on Sunday announced plans to withdraw 12,000 US troops by the end of September, on the same day a bomb in Baghdad killed at least 28 people. Some 140,000 US troops are currently stationed in Iraq.


AFP - Iraq and the United States announced Sunday that 12,000 more US troops will go home by the end of September in an acceleration of the US withdrawal, as a suicide bomber killed 28 people.

"We have agreed that a total of 12,000 US troops will be withdrawn by the end of September 2009," government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said.

Under a US-Iraqi security agreement signed in November during president George W. Bush's tenure, US troops are to withdraw from towns and cities by June 30 and from the whole country by the end of 2011.

Some 140,000 US troops are currently deployed in Iraq -- down from a peak of more than 160,000 during the "surge" offensive against insurgents and Al-Qaeda in 2007.

The announcement came just hours after a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up killing 28 people and wounding 58 more outside a Baghdad police academy in the bloodiest attack in weeks, officials said.

The bomber activated his explosive vest as he ploughed into the crowd on busy Palestine Street in the city centre, an interior ministry official told AFP.

"The majority of the dead were police or recruits," the official said.

Police academies across Iraq have come under repeated attack.

Fifteen people died and more than 45 were wounded in two blasts at the same Baghdad academy on December 1.

It is located in a high security area which includes the interior, oil and irrigation ministries as well as army and national police compounds.

In August, 25 Iraqis -- most applicants to the police force -- died in a suicide bombing at a recruiting centre in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.

Security had been stepped up at the Baghdad academy to try to prevent further attacks and access to the building is intended to be only on foot through checkpoints.

Men are obliged to open their shirts to show they are not carrying weapons or explosives as they approach.

Palestine Street had been closed to vehicles for security reasons for two years. However one lane reopened late last year with no stopping allowed.

Dozens of candidates gather at the academy on days when the police authorities announce a recruitment drive. They queue up to pick up application forms.

The government spokesman told a press conference: "The Iraqi government has no intention of keeping foreign forces in the country after 2011.

"Iraq's armed forces are under construction," Dabbagh added, standing next to coalition forces spokesman Major General David Perkins of the US army.

"By 2011 they will be able to stand on their own. We are confident of the fact that the security agreement will be respected."

Perkins said the US forces would be reduced from 14 to 12 brigades.

The 12,000 men would be from two combat brigades, including the 4th brigade, 82nd airborne and marines battalions, as well as their support staff.

An F16 squadron would be pulled out too and will not be replaced.

"We will not leave any seams with regard to security," Perkins said. "We know how to do this. This is not the first time we have done this."

US President Barack Obama has announced an end to combat operations in Iraq within 18 months, but details of withdrawals had remained sketchy.

US counter-terrorism and training forces numbering up to 50,000 are to remain in Iraq until a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.

"In addition, 4,000 British troops will withdraw in July 2009," Dabbagh said,

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Iraq in December and announced  the 4,100 troops would leave by the end of July, but their mission would already be complete "by the end of May, or earlier."

Security has improved dramatically in Iraq since late 2007 bringing a fragile stability, but attacks remain common in the capital, in confessionally divided Diyala province and around the main northern city of Mosul, which is split between Sunni Arabs, Christians and Kurds.

Sunday's suicide blast followed a truck bomb that killed 10 people and wounded more than 50 on Thursday at a crowded livestock market near Hilla, a mainly Shiite provincial capital south of Baghdad.

That blast was the deadliest single attack in the country since a suicide bomber killed 35 pilgrims heading to the shrine city of Karbala south of Baghdad in February.

Some 258 Iraqis were killed in violence last month, a sharp rise from the previous month that saw the lowest casualty figures since the US-led invasion of March 2003, according to government statistics.

The February death toll was up 35 percent on January's total of 191, which was the lowest figure since 2003.

A total of 4,556 US soldiers have died in Iraq over the past six years as well as 179 British soldiers.

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