WASHINGTON - With violence in Iraq on the decline and a quarter of US combat brigades scheduled to leave by July, commanders plan to give the remaining brigades an expanded role in training and supporting Iraqi forces, according to officials involved in a confidential military review of troop deployment for the coming year.
The plan, not yet in final form, is designed to transfer more of the burden for security in Iraq to the Iraqis without giving up the gains that the Americans have made in recent months in pacifying the most violent areas and weakening the Sunni insurgency.
The approach is strikingly different from the plans advocated by many US politicians, including some Democratic presidential primary contenders, who have called for a rapid withdrawal of US combat brigades from Iraq - the very units US commanders see as playing a central role in the transition toward Iraqi control.
The plan is intended to supplement the longstanding American efforts to recruit, equip, and advise Iraqi forces by strengthening their ability to deal with a diverse array of threats.
It also reflects the vision of US commanders of the evolving role of US combat units after President Bush's troop reinforcement plan runs its course next summer.
Under the approach, some US combat brigades assigned to stay behind would slim down their fighting forces and enlarge the teams mentoring Iraqis. Within a 3,000-member brigade, for example, one battalion or two might help train the Iraqis while the other two battalions would be retained as quick-reaction forces to support Iraqi forces if they ran into stiff resistance.
The precise arrangements would vary depending on the threats and the quality of Iraqi forces in specific regions, and brigade commanders would have considerable leeway in deciding how many soldiers to commit to mentoring. But the shift toward training would be gradual, reflecting what commanders say have been lessons learned from the failure of overhasty efforts to transfer responsibility to the Iraqis.
Even after President Bush's "surge" of troops is over and the number of brigades shrinks to 15 from the current level of 20, US units in some of the more highly contested areas would continue their combat roles. That is based on an assessment that the situation in Iraq is too uncertain and the Iraqi security forces in many areas are too unsteady for an abrupt transfer of responsibilities.
The proposal for a new mix of forces is part of a broad review of the projected US military posture in Iraq for a phase that would begin in the second part of 2008. No final decisions have been made on the pace of further reductions or the details of how the plan would be carried out in Iraq.
General David H. Petraeus, the senior US commander in Iraq, has told Congress that he will not issue new recommendations until March after an assessment of conditions. The basic approach, however, has begun to emerge.
"The White House has been informed conceptually," said one senior Bush administration official, referring to planning. "Fundamentally, this concept is not going to change."
US military officials assert that the situation has changed, which may make it easier for the Iraqi forces to assume more of a security role. Partly as a result of the US troop reinforcements and a new counterinsurgency strategy, violence has subsided, making security more manageable. Many Sunnis now reject Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and thousands have volunteered in local neighborhood watch organizations.
In addition, the Iraqi military is expanding. It is creating three divisions, including the 11th Iraqi Army Division, to be established in Baghdad over the next several months. That unit will enable nine battalions sent to the capital from other regions to return home, strengthening the Iraqi military presence in those areas.
All told, the number of Iraqi soldiers is to increase from almost 200,000 by year's end to 255,000 by the end of 2008.
"The Iraqis have been able to recruit and fill to capacity," said Brigadier General Robin Swan, who oversees the training of the Iraq Army.
In Mosul, a single battalion of US troops - in concert with a large number of Iraqi soldiers and police - helps provide security for a city of more than a million. Still, considerable challenges remain.
The Iraqi Army has about half the noncommissioned officers it needs. Another important weakness, said Major General Benjamin R. Mixon, who recently completed his tour as the senior US commander in northern Iraq, is that Iraqi military training has been focused on developing the skills of individual soldiers, not fighting as a unit.
"They don't have a collective training program right now," Mixon said.
Some specialists also remain skeptical that a largely Shi'ite army and police force can reliably enforce the peace equitably if US forces rapidly draw down.
US officers acknowledge the problems but assert that progress can be made if the United States does not rush the process.
"Don't do it too fast," said Lieutenant General James M. Dubik, who oversees the training of Iraq's security forces. "Transfer those responsibilities that you can to the organizations that can handle them and withhold responsibility from organizations that can't."