By Courtney Kube and Tracy Connor, NBC News
A U.S. Army general who led the war in Iraq until late 2010 said Tuesday that this is not the time to send American troops back there even as the government is struggling to regain control of some cities.
Gen. Ray Odierno said the U.S. trained the Iraqi security forces and they should be the first line of defense against Islamic militants who have taken over the center of Fallujah and part of Ramadi, once battlegrounds for American soldiers.
Asked whether he thinks the U.S. can stop al Qaeda from gaining more ground without boots on the ground, Odierno said, "Well, we have to wait and see.
"I would say this is certainly not the time to put American troops on the ground," he added at a National Press Club event Tuesday.
"I think it's time for them to step up and see what they can do," Odierno said of the Iraqi forces, adding, "and we have to just wait to see and see if it becomes part of our national security interest to put people on the ground.
"But I think right now our goal is to let them take care of this problem, and we'll continue to work with them to try to solve this problem as they go forward."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government is battling an al Qaeda-linked group called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which seized control of territory in the Sunni-majority Anbar province.
Iraqi officials said Tuesday that a government airstrike had killed 25 militants on the outskirts of Ramadi, according to The Associated Press, which could not independently confirm the report.
The airstrike followed fierce clashes outside Fallujah after the capture of an army officer and four soldiers, a provincial spokesman told the AP.
In light of the current crisis, Odierno was asked whether it would have made a difference if U.S. troops had stayed in Iraq after 2011, and he demurred.
"The answer is, I don't know what the answer is to that. What I do know is, as I said earlier, we provided them an opportunity," he said.
Odierno said that it is "disappointing to all of us to see the deterioration of the security inside of Iraq."
Asked what he would say to people who lost loved ones in Iraq only to see the gains made there in jeopardy, the general said that in each case, a fallen soldier "volunteered to be in the military because they were proud to be part of the Army."
"They were proud to do this mission. They were proud to be involved with that. And many of them died doing the things that they wanted to do," he said.