By Kristina Wong - 01/07/14 03:11 PM EST
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said Tuesday the United States should "wait and see" before sending U.S. troops to Iraq, where Al Qaeda militants recently seized parts of two cities.
"This is certainly not the time to put American troops on the ground," Odierno said at the National Press Club in Washington. "We just have to wait and see, if it becomes part of our national security interest to put people on the ground."
Odierno said it was important for the U.S. to continue working with the Iraqi army on counterinsurgency, but it was also important to stay politically involved.
"Iraq is right in the center of the Middle East. It's in a strategic location," he said. "We are still allies and partners with Iraq, and we have to build on that."
He said the events in Iraq are part of a large Sunni-Shiite struggle that's also taking place in Syria and Lebanon, allowing al Qaeda and other nonstate actors to exploit instability.
"The biggest threat to U.S. national security is that this ungoverned territory becomes areas where we have terrorist organizations become dominant and try to export their terrorism outside the Middle East."
Odierno led the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division in Iraq from 2003-2004, and served as commander of U.S. and NATO forces throughout 2006-2010. His oldest son, Tony, was injured in 2004 while serving as a U.S. Army first lieutenant in Iraq.
"It's disappointing to all of us to see the deterioration of security inside of Iraq," said the four-star general. "I spent a lot of my life over there."