Gen. Ray Odierno, the former top U.S. general in Iraq, said today the current deterioration of security in that country is "concerning" and "disappointing to all of us."
Iraq's security forces have struggled this week to retake the western Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, which have been seized by al Qaeda fighters. In 2004, Fallujah was the scene of the bloodiest battles of the war in Iraq.
"Obviously, it's disappointing to all of us to see the deterioration of the security inside of Iraq," Odierno said at a National Press Club luncheon today.
Odierno, who is currently the Army Chief of Staff, served as the Commander of Multi-National Forces Iraq from September 2008 to December 2009.
When the last American troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, violence was at its lowest level in years, he said. "I believe we left it in a place where it was capable to move forward," said Odierno. "That security situation has now devolved into something that is, in my mind, concerning."
One big concern for Odierno is that al Qaeda is taking advantage of the sectarian strife in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to gain territory from which to plan attacks overseas.
"It is dangerous," said Odierno. "The thought of al Qaeda getting ungoverned territories."
Iraqi security forces have been trained to fight an insurgency strategy, Odierno said, noting that it's a time for them "to step up and see what they can do."
Now "is certainly not the time to put American troops on the ground," he added, and that the goal is to let the Iraqis deal with it.
"We can all be Monday-morning quarterbacks on this," Odierno said when asked if the pullout of all American troops at the end of 2011 pushed the Iraqi security situation downhill. "The answer is I don't know."
He emphasized that the U.S. needs to help Iraq to get its political process "back on track" so Iraqis understand the implications of alienating political factions.
Sunnis in Iraq's Anbar Province have often spoken out that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shiite-dominated government has treated them like second-class citizens.
"When you alienate factions, you tend then to provide opportunities for non-state actors such as al Qaeda and other terrorist elements to try to exploit that," Odierno said.
But Odierno also said the country still has the potential of being a "good, strong partner of the United States."
"I would be the first one to admit that today that's looking a bit shaky. But we have to keep working it very hard as we move forward," he said.