The US is examining the possibility of deploying rapid-response forces to bolster troops after a weekend of bloody confrontation between supporters of the Iraqi Shia leader al-Sadr and occupation forces in several cities.

"The events of the weekend show an obvious potential for more demonstrations and more violence," a Central Command official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Worst-case scenarios 

Centcom and Pentagon spokesmen denied that General John Abizaid, head of the US Central Command, had made a specific request for more troops after the weekend's heightened violence. 

"Commanders constantly assess the situation on the ground and they adjust their forces accordingly," said Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel James Cassella.

But Abizaid is considering the case and watching the situation in Iraq closely.

The number of occupation forces
killed in Iraq continues to rise

"He is constantly planning, including worst-case scenarios," said the official, from Centcom's Tampa, Florida, headquarters.
About 134,000 US troops are in Iraq, part of the total 155,000 coalition forces, says Centcom.

Since 1 May 2003, when the US declared major combat operations over, the Pentagon and President George Bush's administration have repeatedly said there are enough US troops in Iraq. 

"But the situation is obviously very serious," said retired general William Nash, a veteran of the Bosnian conflict. 

"There's always a possibility that in the short term they might
add some response forces, but I think they're kind of trapped by their own rhetoric and I don't think they will bring in any more," he said.

Shia uprising

Eight US troops and one Salvadoran soldier were killed when supporters of al-Sadr waged a fierce uprising over the weekend. 

"There's always a possibility that in the short term they might
add some response forces, but I think they're kind of trapped by their own rhetoric and I don't think they will bring in anymore"

William Nash, 
retired general

But the senior military officials said the US does not consider the clashes the beginning of a civil war.

"We can't even begin to call that a Shiite uprising," the official said.

A revolt by the Shia militias has been long dreaded, and the weekend's confrontations have apparently revived concerns among the US military top brass, even though the senior military official downplayed al-Sadr's significance.

Marginalised leader 

Sadr is "already marginalised by most of the Shiite community," the official said.

But he acknowledged that Sadr "does have a strong following in a minor group" that includes "3000 militia members".

The US-led coalition in Iraq announced on Monday that an arrest warrant is in force against al-Sadr in connection with the murder of a pro-Western cleric in one of Iraq's holiest Muslim shrines last year.