The Army’s top military commander expressed deep concern Tuesday over recent territorial gains in Iraq by al Qaida-backed insurgents and declined to rule out the return of more U.S. troops to the war-torn country if overall security there worsens.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, acknowledged that he’s been distressed in recent days by news that Sunni Muslim fighters linked to al Qaida had gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the capital of embattled Anbar province in western Iraq.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing to all of us to see the deterioration of the security inside of Iraq,” Odierno told reporters, military officers and defense analysts at the National Press Club. “The security situation has now devolved into something that is to my mind concerning.”
Asked whether the United States might have to send troops back to Iraq to prevent further al Qaida expansion, Odierno responded: “Well, we have to wait and see. We have trained (Iraqi) security forces to do that. I think the first alternative is for the (Iraqi) forces that are there, that we have trained, to executive that strategy.”
Odierno held increasingly senior command positions in Iraq during three deployments between the March 2003 invasion and September 2010, when the U.S. exit was well underway. He said a small contingent of U.S. troops that remain are continuing to train Iraqi security forces.
“I would say this is certainly not the time to put American troops on the ground,” the general said. “I think it’s time for (Iraqis) to step up and see what they can do. We have to just wait and see if it becomes part of our national security interests to put (more U.S. military) people on the ground.”
Odierno’s comments came two days after Secretary of State John Kerry, concluding a visit to the Middle East, gave a more definitive rejection of possible military re-engagement in Iraq.
“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry said. “We are not, obviously, contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight.”
The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq started in June 2009 and concluded in December 2011.
Fallujah, a hub of Anbar province, was the site of two of the deadliest battles in the war. At least 158 U.S. and allied troops died in the fierce combat to gain control of the city in April 2004 and again in November and December of that year.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who took office in May 2006 after elections that U.S. forces helped secure, on Monday urged tribal leaders in Anbar province and residents of Fallujah to repel the al Qaida-backed rebels in a growing force that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
The Maliki government launched a military offensive last week aimed at retaking Fallujah and Ramadi.
Odierno led the U.S. troop surge in 2007 and 2008 that stabilized Maliki’s government. President George W. Bush proposed the surge and Congress approved it. Odierno said the Anbar region and other parts of Iraq were stable when the United States completed its withdrawal just over two years ago.
“When we departed in 2011, the levels of violence were the lowest they had been in a very, very long time,” he said. “Their economy was growing, they were exporting more oil, they had a political system that appeared to be working. But since those times, that political process has begun to deteriorate.”
Odierno said the problems are tied to broader sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in neighboring Syria and Lebanon.
In addition to their expanding clout in Sunni-dominated Anbar, ISIS forces are fighting across the border with Syrian rebels engaged in a bloody civil war aimed at toppling President Bashar Assad.
“The biggest threat to our national security is (if) this ungoverned territory becomes areas where we have terrorist organizations that become dominant and then try to export their terrorism outside of the Middle East and into several other countries, including the United States,” Odierno said.
Turning to a controversial domestic issue, Odierno said the increased numbers of sexual assaults in the military is unacceptable, especially with more women entering service.
“We have to be able to trust each other,” he said. “And as long as we have sexual assault, sexual harassment, that goes against the fabric of who we are.”
Odierno, however, rejected efforts by some lawmakers to remove the investigation and prosecution of alleged assaults from the military chain of command, and from a separate military legal system that enforces the Uniform Military Code of Justice.
“Don’t take the tool away,” he said. “What we have to do is hold those accountable who aren’t using the tool properly. The chain of command is the essence of who we are.”