http://arabnews.com/middleeast/article107165.ece By REBECCA SANTANA | AP Published: Aug 19, 2010 23:10 Updated: Aug 19, 2010 23:10 KHABARI CROSSING, Kuwait: A line of heavily armored American military vehicles, their headlights twinkling in the pre-dawn desert, lumbered past the barbed wire and metal gates marking the border between Iraq and Kuwait early Thursday and rolled into history. For the troops of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, it was a moment of relief fraught with symbolism but lightened by the whoops and cheers of soldiers one step closer to going home. Seven years and five months after the US-led invasion, the last American combat brigade was leaving Iraq, well ahead of President Barack Obama's Aug. 31 deadline for ending US combat operations there. When 18-year-old Spc. Luke Dill first rolled into Iraq as part of the US invasion, his Humvee was so vulnerable to bombs that the troops lined its floor with flak jackets. Now 25 and a staff sergeant after two tours of duty, he rode out of Iraq this week in a Stryker, an eight-wheeled behemoth encrusted with armor and add-ons to ward off grenades and other projectiles. â€œIt's something I'm going to be proud of for the rest of my life â€” the fact that I came in on the initial push and now I'm leaving with the last of the combat units,â€ he said. The US presence is far from over. Scatterings of troops still await departure, and some 50,000 will stay another year in what is designated as a noncombat role. They will carry weapons to defend themselves and accompany Iraqi troops on missions (but only if asked). Special forces will continue to help Iraqis hunt for terrorists. So the US death toll â€” at least 4,415 by Pentagon count as of Wednesday â€” may not yet be final. The Stryker brigade's departure left about 52,600 US troops in Iraq as of Thursday, said Lt. Gen. Robert Cone. The US military's top spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, called Iraqi security forces ready to defend the country despite â€œsome violent acts that we've seen.â€ â€œTheir capability continues to grow, which has enabled us to conduct our responsible drawdown,â€ Lanza said on CBS's â€œThe Early Show.â€ The US military kept a tight lid on security, restricting the media embedded with the US troops from reporting on the brigade's movements until they were almost to the border. The brigade's leadership volunteered to have half of its 4,000 soldiers depart overland instead of taking the traditional flight out, a decision that allowed the unit to keep 360 Strykers in the country for an extra three weeks. The remainder of the brigade flew out with the last of the troops later Thursday. US commanders say it was the brigade's idea to drive out, not an order from on high. The intent was to keep additional firepower handy through the â€œperiod of angstâ€ that followed Iraq's inconclusive March 7 election, said brigade chief, Col. John Norris. It took months of preparation to move the troops and armor across more than 500 km of desert highway through potentially hostile territory at night.