US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave a strong hint on Tuesday that US troop levels in Iraq might be increased in coming days, perhaps only slightly and temporarily.
At a Pentagon news briefing, Rumsfeld said any increase in troops would coincide with a surge of pilgrims expected to visit Muslim shrines in coming weeks. In both 2004 and last year, violence was sometimes directed at Shiite pilgrims during religious holidays.
Three officials involved in the discussions said a leading proposal was to send in a battalion-sized group, about 800 troops.
Pentagon civilian and military officials said any extra forces that might be ordered into Iraq would come from an armored brigade of about 3,500 to 4,000 troops now stationed in Kuwait.
If the deployment occurs, it would be the first time the brigade, a unit of the 1st Armored Division, left its standby status.
Officials said neither Rumsfeld or General George Casey Jr, the senior commander in Iraq, had made a final decision on troop movements yet.
The discussions on troop numbers come at a time of continuing sectarian violence in Iraq that senior military officials now say poses a greater security threat than terrorists or the insurgency.
Until the recent upwelling of violence, there had been talk of additional, incremental reductions in the numbers of US forces.
One reason for concern, Rumsfeld said, was the number of pilgrims from Iran who come to Iraq. US President George W. Bush, Rumsfeld and other officials have said in recent days that Iran is intervening in Iraqi affairs and fomenting attacks.
Rumsfeld avoided making predictions about future troop levels, saying they would fluctuate as the US worked to reduce its forces by handing off security responsibilities to Iraqis, but sought not to withdraw at such a pace that it invited sectarian, insurgent or terrorist violence.
"We're continuing to pull troops down," Rumsfeld said. "And we're continuing to shift our weight, as we've said, between the combat patrol aspects of it, over to the training and the equipping and providing the enablers."