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ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. troop levels in Iraq should drop to 120,000 by the end of the year, said Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

"We want to make sure that we have enough forces on the ground to ensure good elections, legitimate and credible elections in January," Odierno told reporters on Tuesday.

Odierno said he will decide on troop strength in September and October.

"We have 131,000 [troops] on the ground," he said. "I expect we’ll be somewhere around 120,000 by December. But that could change, because I have some flexibility based on how things go here on the ground. ...

"After the elections are over and the government starts to get seated, we will reduce our presence further, probably going somewhere between 115 to 120 [thousand] down to 50,000."

U.S. combat troops are slated to leave Iraq by the end of August 2010. A smaller force is expected to remain until the end of 2011 to train Iraqi security forces.

All U.S. combat troops left Iraqi cities before Tuesday, the first major deadline in the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. A relatively small number of troops will remain the cities to help Iraqi troops and police.

But Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani warned against being lulled into a false sense of security.

"June 30 is not an historical endpoint to be celebrated by political philosophers; it is the beginning of a highly uncertain chapter in Iraqi democracy and self-governance," Bolani wrote in a Tuesday op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

Iraq still faces challenges from al-Qaida, Iran and internal corruption, he wrote.

Defense secretary Robert Gates said that U.S. commanders on the ground have already seen an uptick in attacks in advance of the pullout.

"To that degree, we have seen relatively positive developments," he said. "Even after several bombings with a lot of casualties, sectarian violence has not reignited. Most Iraqis are sick and tired of the violence."

Odierno has said he expects a low-level insurgency to persist beyond the end of 2011. "I would see them to be very small, not connected, not have a lot of robust capability, but would still potentially conduct some attacks and some activity over time; and I think we have to have the Iraqi security forces prepared to deal with this type of threat," he said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this story.

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