No combat deaths in Iraq in Dec.

BAGHDAD — December was the first month since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq nearly seven years ago in which no U.S. forces died in combat in the country.

Gen. Ray Odierno called it a significant milestone and said it speaks to how the violence in Iraq has diminished. Odierno is the commanding general in Iraq.

There were three U.S. troops who died in December as a result of non-combat-related incidents.

According to an Associated Press count, 149 U.S. troops died in Iraq in 2009. That includes combat-related deaths and those not related to fighting.

That's the lowest number of U.S. deaths for a year since the Iraq war began in 2003.

The milestone was hailed by military officials Friday as they inaugurated a new name for the U.S. force at the start of the year that will see the war wind down in earnest.

Henceforth, the Multinational Force-Iraq will officially be called the United States Force-Iraq, in belated recognition of the fact that for some time there have been no other nations serving alongside U.S. troops in the nearly 7-year-old conflict.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the service members and diplomats assembled at one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces on the sprawling Camp Victory complex outside Baghdad. that the new name signaled a new phase for the U.S. military as it prepares to halt all combat operations and draw down from the current level of 110,000 troops to fewer than 50,000 by August.

The remaining U.S. troops, who will provide support and training, are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.

Although challenges remain, in the form of a continued al-Qaida in Iraq presence and Iranian-sponsored Shiite Muslim militias, Petraeus said, "there has been sustained progress."

Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, hailed the absence of American casualties in December as "a significant milestone" in the U.S. efforts to leave behind a stable country.

"Iraq has moved out of the darkness toward the light of hope," Odierno told the crowd.