General Peter Schoomaker, the Army's Chief of Staff, said such a protracted troop deployment was a "worst-case scenario" but that he and other planners were already considering their options up to 2009.
It was not immediately clear whether the remarks by General Schoomaker, made in an interview with the Associated Press, had been sanctioned by the White House, which has sought to minimise public discussion of the problems in Iraq and suggested at every turn that the country was well on the way to self-determination.
The general's comments drew the ire of Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who is critical of the Iraq war, who described the contingency plan as "complete folly".
"I don't know where he's going to get these troops," Senator Hagel said. "There won't be any National Guard left ... no Army Reserve left ... there is no way America is going to have 100,000 troops in Iraq, nor should it, in four years. It would bog us down, it would further destabilise the Middle East, it would give Iran more influence, it would hurt Israel, it would put our allies over there in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in a terrible position. It won't be four years. We need to be out."
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered a more conciliatory assessment, saying that one thing worse than General Schoomaker's worst-case scenario would be to leave Iraq with a "dysfunctional, repressive government".
The debate was indicative of several things: the continuing precarious situation on the ground in Iraq, a dramatic fall-off in public support for the US presence there, and a growing power struggle in the Republican Party to find a successor to President George Bush.
Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that the public are increasingly questioning President Bush's decision in going to war in Iraq in the first place and are concerned over his honesty in presenting the case for war. Recently there has been widepsread sympathy for Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in action in the Middle East who was camped outside President Bush's Texas ranch for most of August demanding an explanation from him for why her son had to die.Reuse content