Sept. 9 (UPI) -- The Pentagon will scale down the U.S. military presence in Iraq this month by more than 2,000 troops, the top commander in the Middle East said Wednesday.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters in Baghdad the troop level will decrease from about 5,200 to 3,000 by the end of the month.
After Baghdad declared victory over the Islamic State terror group in late 2017, thousands of U.S. personnel remained in Iraq to prevent a resurgence.
"This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of [the group] in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat," McKenzie said.
"This decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces' increased ability to operate independently."
McKenzie said the top goal is to develop local security forces so they can effectively fight the Islamic State, which once controlled vast sections of Iraq.
"The U.S. decision is a clear demonstration of our continued commitment to the ultimate goal, which is an Iraqi Security Force that is capable of preventing an [IS] resurgence and of securing Iraq's sovereignty without external assistance.
"The journey has been difficult, the sacrifice has been great, but the progress has been significant. Your mission is important and there is still much work to be done -- so let's get back to it."
A troop reduction in Iraq had been anticipated for months, but the size of the draw-down was larger than expected after reports two weeks ago indicated the Pentagon would scale down by 1,700 troops ahead of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.
Experts say it's likely President Donald Trump will cite the troop withdrawal as evidence of progress to wind down what he's called "endless wars" in the Middle East. U.S. troops first arrived in Iraq in 2003 as part of the broad U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The continued U.S. presence has been opposed by various Iraqi political groups, some which have ties to Iran. Hundreds of thousands gathered in Baghdad in January after a U.S. drone attack killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani -- a move that drew missile strikes from Tehran against two U.S. bases in Iraq, which caused concussion-like injuries for dozens of American troops.