The Army's top officer said Tuesday it was "frustrating" to watch the gains U.S. troops helped achieve in Iraq unravel with the entrance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and that the chaos "might have been prevented."
“It's frustrating to watch it,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Fox News in an exclusive interview weeks away from his retirement after 39 years in the Army.
“I go back to the work we did in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 and we got it to a place that was really good. Violence was low, the economy was growing, politics looked like it was heading in the right direction," he said.
Odierno, who commanded at various levels in Iraq during the war, said “I think it would have been good for us to stay,” when asked by Fox News if it was a mistake to pull out.
The Obama administration withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq except for an embassy presence at the end of 2011, after it was unable to secure an agreement with Iraq to offer American forces immunity from Iraqi law.
The Shia-dominated government under then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pursued sectarian policies after U.S. troops left, persecuting the Sunni minority, and exacerbating grievances that allowed ISIS, a Sunni extremist group, to gain a foothold.
ISIS first entered Fallujah last January, and then swept into northern Iraq, capturing Mosul, Iraq's second city and a large swath of territory.
In 2009, Odierno had recommended keeping 30,000 to 35,000 U.S. troops there after the end of 2011.
“If we had stayed a little more engaged, I think maybe it might have been prevented,” he said. “I've always believed the United States played the role of honest broker between all the groups and when we pulled ourselves out, we lost that role.”
Odierno said after ISIS took over Iraq, he was never contacted by the White House, although he had served in Iraq more than any other U.S. Army general.
“All my work was given to [Joint Chiefs] Chairman [Martin] Dempsey,” Odiernio said. “I never talked directly to the president about it at that time, but I talked to the secretary of defense and I'm sure he relayed all of my thoughts,” he said.
Odierno also said he supported a recently announced nuclear deal with Iran, he warned it would not change Iran's behavior in the region.
“Iran has continued to do malign activities throughout the Middle East [and] they will continue,” said Odierno, who blamed Iran for contributing to the unraveling of Iraq and the rise of ISIS.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey recently said that Iran was responsible for about 500 American deaths during the Iraq War, due to its supply of weapons for Shia-militia to target U.S. troops.
Odierno did not dispute that figure.
“We can't be naïve," he said.