BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 15, 2007 -- In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, says the current surge of 21,500 troops is not "open-ended" and warned that "time is running out" for the United States to turn things around in Iraq.
ABC News' Jonathan Karl interviewed Odierno earlier today in Baghdad.
Odierno said "time is running out" for a number of reasons, including domestic pressures at home. "Not so much the political environment," he said, "but the support for this in the United States."
The head of Multi-National Corps-Iraq also cited concerns about another renewal of the United Nations resolution that allows the presence of multi-national forces in Iraq. He also has concerns about potential limitations on authority that might be imposed if the resolution is extended again. The U.N. Security Council Resolution 1723 expires on December 31, 2007.
Speaking of President Bush's decision to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, Odierno said, "Whether it's the last chance or not, I'm not willing to go that far, what I will say, it's not open-ended."
Odierno acknowledged that the pressures from home for the operation to succeed are not lost on American troops fighting in Iraq. "The American people want to see some success," he said. "I think that's the frustrating part to them…they understand these are great soldiers and they don't understand why we're not showing success, and so I think it's important for them to see some success."
The top commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq is willing to give the Iraqi government the benefit of the doubt in its commitment to fully rein in the extremist sectarian militias. "They're going to allow their military commanders to do military work without being interfered with, so I think they've really made all the right statements so far," he said.
But according to Odierno, the effort to defeat the extremists will involve more than just a military effort. He believes a large percentage of the militias will be absorbed by the Iraqi reconciliation process. "It'll be that small number of extremists that we have to deal with."
A Pentagon assessment of the Iraqi security situation issued in December labeled the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- the Mahdi Army -- as the greatest threat to security in Iraq.
Citing the cleric's participation in the political process, Odierno said that al-Sadr is not a focal point of the joint Iraqi-American effort to target sectarian extremists. "Bottom line is Moqtada al-Sadr is part of the political process. He is head of a political party." At the same time, Odierno warned that the United States could treat him differently if "he moves away from the political framework and starts participating in extremist activities, then we will deal with him as warranted."
Sadr's militia operates out of the Shiite neighborhood known as Sadr City, an area that some military commanders have called a "safe haven" for his militia. Odierno would not discuss future plans for the area, but said the joint U.S.-Iraqi effort against extremists will target them wherever they are. "If those happen to be in Sadr City, then when the time's right, we will deal with them," he said.
Odierno echoed the new tough line toward Iranian interference in Iraq, "We have to be able to make sure that they understand they cannot operate freely in Iraq in order to support extremist organizations throughout Iraq." Just last week, American forces detained five Iranians in Northern Iraq suspected of being Iranian Revolutionary Guards providing support to insurgents.
Odierno labeled Iran an "accelerant to violence" that provides money, training and weapons to extremists in Iraq. "We can't allow that to happen," he said.
The war in Iraq has come at a personal cost for Odierno. His son, Capt. Tony Odierno, lost an arm to a roadside blast when he was deployed to Iraq in 2004. Odierno said his son had no regrets about his military service or his deployment to Iraq. "Frankly, I think if he felt he was able, he'd be over here again," he said.
Odierno wants to ensure that the U.S. mission in Iraq is successful for more than just strategic reasons. "I want to make sure that they've lost their lives for a reason or they were injured for a reason…I think it is a just cause and I want us to be successful and accomplish this mission so they know that their sacrifices were not given in vain."