* Under 50,000 U.S. soldiers left in Iraq
* Few expect to mark 2011 Christmas in Iraq
By Serena Chaudhry
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq, Dec 25 (Reuters) - Colonel Lance
Kittleson is looking forward to spending Christmas with his
family next year as U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq 7-1/2 years
after the invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Many of the U.S. troops left in Iraq can't wait to get home.
"Back in 2003, we were extended repeatedly and we didn't
know if we would ever get home. Now we know we're going home in
a certain length of time," Kittleson, a chaplain, said during a
candlelight vigil with other soldiers to mark Christmas.
"It's time for us to get home. We've been here long enough.
The Iraqis are doing their job," he added.
The United States officially ended combat in Iraq at the end
of August and the just under 50,000 troops left are supporting
Iraqi security forces in an advisory and assistance role.
All troops are to be fully withdrawn by the end of 2011
under a security agreement between the two countries.
At Joint Base Balad in Iraq's northern Salahuddin province,
many U.S. soldiers added a touch of colour to their uniforms on
Saturday, donning Santa Claus hats and reindeer antlers to join
Christians around the world in celebrating Christmas.
American troops in Iraq numbered about 170,000 at the peak,
but tens of thousands have already gone home. The number at
Joint Base Balad, one of the largest U.S. bases, has been
whittled down to around 7,000.
While the numbers are expected to fall further in coming
months, Lieutenant General Jack Stoltz, head of the U.S. army
reserve, said he expected some of his reservists who are working
on the troop withdrawal to remain in Iraq until the last minute.
"We'll be the last ones to leave because we have to get all
the combat forces out and then we shut down all the operations,"
said Stoltz, who flew in from the United States to visit troops
in Balad for Christmas.
"I would fully expect that there will be some American
forces still shutting things down here on December 25 before
they leave by December 31."
ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS
Stoltz, as well as other soldiers like Kittleson who have
previously spent Christmas in Iraq, said they were able to mark
the holiday more openly this year than in previous years due to
a drop in violence.
At Balad, many U.S. soldiers took part in a 5 km early
morning run and later feasted on a traditional Christmas lunch.
"When I was here myself in 2003 and 2004, and then coming
back over for visiting in 2006 and 2007, (it was) an entirely
different environment then with a lot of violence," Stoltz said.
"In Christmas of 2003, we really didn't know it was
Christmas. We were on operations, we were going full force, we
were on point, on alert," he added.
Although violence has subsided from the sectarian warfare in
2006-07, killings and bombings still occur daily.
Recent attacks have also targeted Iraq's Christian minority,
with a siege on a cathedral in central Baghdad on Oct. 31 ending
with 52 hostages and police killed.
U.S. soldiers at Balad condemned the attacks but most said
violence had ebbed from their previous deployments.
"This is a time for hope ... bringing hope to Iraq, that
they (Iraqis) will take over and we'll give them all the tools
that they need to be a success," said Lieutenant Colonel
Kimberley Norris-Jones of the U.S. Army Reserve 108th Division.
"We're not going to leave them in a hole, we're going to
leave them set for success."
(Editing by Peter Graff)
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