With one of two U.S. aircraft carriers withdrawn from the Persian Gulf, Defense Secretary William Cohen Monday offered assurances that "there's a great deal of firepower remaining" to enforce Iraqi compliance with U.N. arms inspections.

The USS Independence and its battle group went through the Strait of Hormuz early Sunday, heading toward its home port in Japan in a regularly scheduled ship rotation. Another carrier, the USS Stennis, remains in the gulf."We still have a vigorous presence there, somewhere between 17 and 20 thousand troops," Cohen said Monday on NBC's "Today" show. "There's a great deal of firepower remaining and a lot of prepositioned equipment and the ability to augment the size of that force within about 48 hours."

Cohen, in an interview from Santiago, Chile, said U.S. forces in the region "give us great capability, so (Iraqi president) Saddam Hussein should not take any comfort. In fact, all of our allies are really on board with trying to have a vigorous and viable force in the region which can be quickly expanded."

"This does not represent a change in our willingness, our ability, to carry out any mission in the region," P.J. Crowley, a White House spokesman, said on Sunday. "If the situation were to worsen, we can quickly flow more forces into the region as we need to."

The USS Eisenhower, scheduled to leave America's East Coast for the Mediterranean next month, also could be sent to the gulf if the situation with Iraq heats up and another carrier is required, the Pentagon has said.

The United States has maintained two carriers in the gulf since November to bolster threats of a possible U.S. military strike on Iraq if the country refuses full access to U.N. weapons inspectors. Some U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, refused to let the United States mount air strikes from bases in their territory.

The inspectors must certify that Baghdad has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction before the United Nations will lift trade sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the 1991 gulf war.

Departure of the Independence - along with the USS Bunker Hill, a cruiser; the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain; the USS Tucson, a submarine; and two supply ships - leaves 17 American warships and 18 logistics ships in the region.