President George Bush has raised the possibility that next year American troop strength in Iraq might be increased, rather than reduced, if the fraught security in the country requires it.
Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and other senior administration officials have left little doubt US forces will remain in Iraq, even after the accelerated handover of most authority to a provisional Iraqi government in mid-2004. But the Pentagon's plan, under a complicated rotation system announced last month, is for total troop strength in Iraq to drop to 105,000 by next May from the present 130,000.
Military analysts say that without mass call-ups of reservists there are not enough regular troops to maintain forces at the present level beyond the first quarter of 2004. But at Mr Bush's press conference in London with Tony Blair, he seemed to startle even his close aides near by, by suggesting the number could rise. "I said that were going to bring our troops home starting next year?" he asked rhetorically in response to a question. "We could have fewer troops in Iraq, we could have the same number, we could have more troops in Iraq."
Afterwards, Pentagon officials insisted the rotation plans had not changed. But Mr Bush was indirectly responding to Republicans in Congress, notably Senator John McCain, his opponent in the 2000 primaries, who say only more troops will bring stability in Iraq.
Other countries refused to provide the extra 15,000-strong division Washington wanted. Mr Bush seemed to have been sending a message that he would not "cut and run" from Iraq for political reasons, as the 2004 election approached.