WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 - Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, is reviewing a proposal to add hundreds of American military advisers to work directly with Iraqi units, whose disappointing performance could jeopardize the long-term American exit strategy from Iraq, senior military officials said Monday.
Americans are training Iraqi police officers and national guard troops to replace them in securing the country, but the results over all have been troubling, with growing desertion rates in the most violent provinces, gaps in leadership, and poor battlefield performance, American military officers and troops say.
The advisers would bolster the Iraqi will to fight, help train officers who would lead the troops, curb desertion and provide Iraqi forces with the confidence that American units would back them up - in some cases fighting alongside them if needed, military and Pentagon officials said.
Several hundred American troops are already embedded with Iraqi units, following a long tradition in American military actions. But the proposal would greatly expand this presence.
The details of the proposal are still being discussed among American and Iraqi officials, and more troops would probably not be embedded until after the Jan. 30 elections, in which Iraqi forces will play a crucial part.
Embedding more Americans with Iraqis would mean diverting perhaps several hundred additional American troops away from combat operations, military officials said. There are 150,000 American forces in Iraq.
Although diverting soldiers might be risky at a time when commanders say they need troops to press offensives against insurgents, the plan addresses a widely acknowledged need.
American commanders have praised the skills of some Iraqi forces, particularly new commando units that have seen combat throughout the country. But the Americans have criticized other Iraqi forces for their slovenly appearance and lack of commitment, raising questions about how soldiers and marines will respond tojoining such units.
There has been widespread concern in the Bush administration about the poor performance of Iraqi troops. President Bush himself discussed the issue in a news conference on Dec. 20. "They've got some generals in place and they've got foot soldiers in place, but the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place," he said. "And so they're going to spend a lot of time and effort on achieving that objective."
If approved, the plan would expand and standardize steps already taken by some American units, including the Army's First Cavalry Division and some Marine Corps units, to enhance the training that the Iraqi Army, National Guard and police forces receive after boot camp.
"The development of Iraqi security forces is, in my view, necessarily the main effort," Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of American forces in northern Iraq, said in an e-mail message from his headquarters in Mosul on Monday. "Building capable and loyal Iraqi forces is what will eventually lead to the defeat of the insurgency and to a sufficiently stable environment so that U.S. and other forces can begin to reduce our presence."
General Ham, noting the earlier efforts by some units, said, "It's time to apply it on a larger scale."
"It seems to me that this is something we want to start doing in the immediate post-election period," he said.
The proposal that General Casey and his top aides are weighing has received support in principle from Pentagon officials at a time when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been urging commanders in Iraq to accelerate the creation of Iraqi security forces and to improve their quality, a senior Pentagon official said Monday.
General Casey, at a Pentagon news conference on Dec. 16, said an exhaustive internal review of the military's campaign plan for Iraq concluded that training the local police and building a better border patrol were two of three essential areas that were well behind schedule. The other area was establishing effective Iraqi intelligence services.
Proponents of embedding programs readily acknowledge that they will lose the American troops for active combat operations, but they insist that the Iraqis' training and confidence has improved.
"It's cost us," Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, an assistant commander of the First Cavalry Division in Baghdad, told reporters last week of the division's 540 soldiers who are now assigned to Iraqi National Guard units in the city. But, he added, "It pays dividends."
Some influential lawmakers, however, including Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee and who recently visited troops in Iraq, have expressed pessimism that Iraqis will be able to develop independent security forces potent enough to thwart the insurgency. "The raw material is lacking in the willpower and commitment after they receive this training to really shoulder the heavy responsibilities," he said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" on Dec. 19.
On paper, there are reasons for worry and for hope, military officials say. There are plans to produce a total of 179,600 police and border patrol officers. Of about 116,000 officers on duty now, only 73,000 are fully trained and equipped, according to Pentagon statistics on Dec. 27. About half of a projected 100,000 Iraqi Army, National Guard and commando troops are now operating.
There are now 10-man adviser and support teams with each of 27 regular Iraqi Army and intervention force battalions (nine of which are still in training), their nine brigade headquarters (three still in training) and their three division headquarters, senior military officials in Iraq said.
In addition, adviser teams from Army Special Forces and other American units are with most of the Iraqi National Guard forces.
Expanding on those adviser teams, the proposal before General Casey would probably provide 10-man teams with 45 existing and 20 emerging national guard battalions. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security is providing small teams to help train new Iraqi border police officers, a military official in Iraq said.
Some details of the new plan were first reported by CNN on Dec. 26.
Some of the most ambitious plans are to bolster the abilities of the Iraqi police. The new Iraqi government has fielded about a dozen police commando units or other specialized units, whose performance American officers have largely praised.
The commandos include former Iraqi special forces troops and have performed well, combining commando skills and weaponry with police powers to make arrests, a senior allied official in Baghdad said Monday.
The approach would also provide assistance and mentoring to the 3,500 basic police graduates that academies in Iraq and Jordan are churning out every month.
After the insurgent attacks on police stations in Mosul in November, in which most of the city's police officers abandoned their posts, American officials, working closely with the Iraqi government, have toughened the training to resemble more paramilitary operations and have enforced policies to cut down on Iraqis' skipping out on leave.
In Mosul, American forces have been assigned to all police stations. On Saturday, Iraqi security forces and their American advisers fought off a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a police station in the southeast part of the city.
A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, said it was the 12th time since Nov. 10 that insurgents had tried to take over a police station, none of which have fallen to rebels in that period.
Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington for this article, and Erik Eckholm from Baghdad.