Prague, 18 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Britain has been Washington's closest and most determined partner in the military intervention in Iraq.
British troops fought their way into southern Iraq in the war to topple Saddam Hussein, and have since administered the region around the key Iraqi port of Al-Basrah with considerable success.
But Washington's request for the British to send some 600 to 800 troops to take over a zone in an area of active insurgency has landed like a bombshell on the British political scene.
"It is certainly going to be very difficult indeed for Blair to refuse the request, in terms of his relationship with Bush, but the other side of the coin [is] that he is probably going to come under tremendous political criticism here in the U.K. if he does meet the request."
For Ian Kemp, a senior analyst with Jane's geo-political publishing group, it reveals just how stretched the U.S. military is to meet its commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world.
"One thing it does show is how hard-pressed the U.S. Army is. To request an additional battalion, a mere 800 men, you would think this is something the U.S. Army or the Marine Corps would be able to provide themselves," Kemp says.
The British forces so far have managed to remain largely out of the headlines despite the increasingly vicious anti-occupation insurgency to the north.
That's at least partly because the southern part of the country -- of mostly Shi'a Muslims -- was generally hostile to Hussein's regime anyway and was not sorry to see the dictator go.
But independent London-based military analyst Alexandra Ashbourne adds that the British are skilled at peacekeeping and have done a good job.
"The British forces are treated with quite some considerable respect, they seem to be doing a very good job, and because of the British skill, particularly in peacekeeping, they are getting along well," Ashbourne said.
Ashbourne says the timing of Washington's request -- just two weeks before the U.S. presidential election -- has been widely greeted with cynicism in Britain.
"There is real, real concern in this country that this request has come at this time precisely because of the election in the week after next in the United States, that Bush wants to show that it really is a coalition [of nations operating in Iraq], it is not just the Americans operating [there]," Ashbourne said.
British officials say there has been no decision yet on how to react to the U.S. request. But alarm bells are ringing in that the British public have never been enthusiastic about the Iraq war, and a move like this could result in increased British casualties.
"The Guardian" daily newspaper says in an editorial today that "if ever there was an example of 'mission creep,' the request from the U.S. for the redeployment in support of the Americans south of Baghdad, is as dangerous as they come."
It says deployment would mark a "major escalation" of Britain's involvement in the occupation of Iraq. Yet, so far, there has been little public discussion of the move.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon was to address the British parliament today to provide the details to lawmakers.
The request adds further pressure on British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose popularity has plummeted since it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Neutralizing those weapons was the main reason he used to justify the war.
As analyst Kemp sees it, Blair is going to have a difficult time whatever he decides.
"It is certainly going to be very difficult indeed for Blair to refuse the request, in terms of his relationship with Bush, but the other side of the coin [is] that he is probably going to come under tremendous political criticism here in the U.K. if he does meet the request," Kemp said.
Reports say that if there is any redeployment, it would likely involve soldiers of the crack Scottish regiment called the "Black Watch."
They would replace U.S. troops of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Force, who would reportedly move to near the insurgent-controlled city of Al-Fallujah, to take part in the expected major offensive against the insurgents.
British officials have said there are no plans to send British forces into Al-Fallujah itself or to Baghdad.