WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. Army general who commanded troops during the invasion in Iraq lamented Tuesday the recapturing of two key Iraqi cities by al-Qaida linked militants, but defended the timing of the U.S. withdrawal.
“It’s disappointed all of us to see the deterioration of security inside Iraq,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
When U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, “most of the violence was the lowest it had been in a very, very long time,” he said. “Their economy was growing … they had a political system in place that appeared to be working. But since those times, that political process has begun to deteriorate.”
Odierno stressed that the U.S. should use diplomacy to help Iraq regain control of its political process and work with its army on counterinsurgency against rebel factions. He opposed sending American troops back to Iraq to fend off militants.
“This is certainly not the time to put American troops on the ground,” Odierno said. “I think it’s time for [Iraqis] to step up ... I think right now our goal is to let them take care of the problem.”
Iraq occupies a strategic location in the Middle East and maintaining a strong partnership with the country is a key goal as the United States seeks to maintain stability in the region, Odierno said. However, he acknowledged that those prospects don’t look good.
“I will be the first one today to admit that’s looking a bit shaky,” Odierno said.
Odierno’s comments come as the militants, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- ISIL – have emerged as one of strongest rebel units in Iraq and surged into Fallujah and Ramadi, where U.S. troops saw the heaviest fighting during the Iraq War.
Ninety-five Americans were killed in combat during the second battle of Fallujah at the end of 2004, according to the U.S. Marine Corps.
In response to veterans of the Iraq War who are feeling despair at seeing those hard-won cities recaptured, Odierno said it was difficult to look back on the sacrifices made by Americans, but stressed that servicemembers accomplished their mission there.
“I believe we left it in a way that enabled them to move forward. We removed a ruthless dictator,” he said.
“It is incredibly difficult for us to deal with the lives that were lost. I can never explain properly to anybody when somebody loses their life,” Odierno said. “But I do know that in each and every one of those cases, they raised [their hand] and volunteered to be in the Army and they were proud to do this mission, and many of them died doing the things they wanted to do.”