Current and former U.S. military officers are blaming Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his aides for the inadequate troop strength on the ground in Iraq, saying the civilian leaders "micromanaged" the deployment plan out of mistrust of the generals and an attempt to prove their own theory that a light, maneuverable force could handily defeat Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

More than a dozen officers interviewed, including a senior officer in Iraq, said Rumsfeld took significant risks by leaving key units in the United States and Germany at the start of the war. That resulted in an invasion force that is too small, strung out, underprotected, undersupplied and awaiting tens of thousands of reinforcements who will not get there for weeks.

"The civilians in [Rumsfeld's office] vetoed the priority and sequencing of joint forces into the region -- as it was requested by the war fighters -- and manipulated it to support their priorities," said an officer who asked not to be quoted by name. "When they did this, it de-synchronized not only the timing of the arrival of people and their organic equipment, but also the proper mix of combat, combat support and combat support units."

Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said yesterday that he told a senior member of Rumsfeld's staff shortly before the war that the secretary's office had to stop meddling in the deployment process and let Army commanders have the units they believed they needed to fight the war.

Rumsfeld, McCaffrey said, "sat on each element for weeks and wanted an explanation for every unit called up out of the National Guard and Reserve, and argued about every 42-man maintenance detachment. Why would a businessman want to deal with the micromanagement of the force? The bottom line is, a lack of trust that these Army generals knew what they were doing."

Responding to criticism, Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference Friday that U.S. forces were following a war plan that was developed by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of Central Command, and agreed to by leaders of all the military services. Myers called it "brilliant."

Aides close to Rumsfeld said any changes made were for the better. "The original war plan for Iraq was really awful," a senior official said yesterday. "It was basically Cold War planning, and we're not in the Cold War anymore. Rumsfeld, like a lot of people, asked a lot of questions designed to produce the best, most flexible plan."

Briefing reporters yesterday at the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, deputy operations director for the Joint Chiefs, insisted that the move this week to send an armored division, an armored cavalry division and an armored cavalry regiment to Iraq was not a reaction to battlefield conditions, but part of the long-planned rolling start.

"This force flow was determined months ago, to include the order of forces moving and when they would go, and deployment orders were signed before we even were sure that we would have to have hostilities," McChrystal said. "So, if anybody takes an inference that this is reinforcements based upon what's happened in the first week of the war, that would be incorrect."

But many officers insist that the United States would have had a much heavier force on the ground when the war began had Rumsfeld refrained from constantly changing Central Command's troop deployment plan, known in military parlance as the Time Phased Force and Deployment Data (TPFDD).

One senior defense official said those changes delayed deployments by as much as 50 days and meant a slower start for three heavy divisions: the 4th Infantry, whose equipment is heading for Kuwait after being denied a base in Turkey; the 1st Cavalry, which has not started moving from its base at Fort Hood, Tex., and the 1st Armored, which is at its base in Germany.

"I know the 1st Armored Division was delayed," an officer said. "They were scheduled in pretty early. I don't know why, but I just know they were stood down. Otherwise, they would have been there by now."

The officer said he discussed the need to secure rear supply lines weeks ago with Army Lt. Gen. Scott Wallace, commander of the 5th Corps inside Iraq, and that Wallace wanted the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment assigned to that mission. The unit is moving from its base at Fort Polk, La. -- a week after irregular Iraqi forces from Saddam's Fedayeen began attacking supply convoys and other U.S. forces from the rear.

Rumsfeld's aides said there were legitimate reasons for not deploying the units sooner. "There were people with antiquated thinking and processes," the senior defense official said, "who wanted to deploy people and wreck their lives and move them even before we knew there was going to be a war -- because it's easier that way."

But Rumsfeld's detractors acknowledge that the defense secretary probably would not be taking so much criticism if the government of Turkey had allowed the 4th Infantry Division to be based there. That would have put hundreds of the Army's highest-tech Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in place to begin a powerful and rapid advance toward Baghdad from the north.

Instead, 35 ships carrying the division's equipment remained off the coast of Turkey for three weeks after Turkey's parliament first rejected a basing agreement and as Bush administration officials worked to persuade Turkish officials to change their minds.

The ships were finally sent through the Suez Canal after the war began when it became clear the Turkish rejection was final.

With those ships now heading for Kuwait, where they will not finish offloading for two to three weeks, the advance on Hussein's capital is being spearheaded by one heavy mechanized Army division, the 3rd Infantry, which has advanced more than 200 miles from Kuwait in concert with lighter forces from the Army's 101st Airborne Division, the Marines and the British.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Rumsfeld understandably delayed calling up some guard and reserve units and deploying units from the United States for "political" reasons early in the year as the Bush administration pursued a diplomatic solution for disarming Iraq through January and February.

Shortly before the war began, Cordesman said, a senior U.S. military official conceded at a briefing that the lack of a northern front and the delayed deployment of some units for political reasons "did mean more risks and a lack of some of the forces needed if Iraq did not weaken in the south."

But "making Rumsfeld the scapegoat before the major battles begin, and most of the evidence is present, is scarcely fair," Cordesman said. "Rumsfeld may or may not have much to answer for once all of the facts and the outcome of the war is known -- but Rumsfeld does not deserve virtually all of the present blame he is getting."

One Army general agreed, saying the TPFDD deployment plan -- a computer printout the size of a telephone book listing the exact sequence for moving hundreds of units, large and small -- was rigid and archaic. But the general said that a difficult situation was made worse once Rumsfeld and his aides starting rejiggering the plan.

In addition to warning Rumsfeld's staff about micromanaging the TPFDD, McCaffrey said he warned a senior defense official shortly before the war began that although the Pentagon's assumptions on how strongly Iraq would resist were probably sound, planners were risking a "political and military disaster" if they were wrong.

"They chose to go into battle with a ground combat capability that was inadequate, unless their assumptions proved out," McCaffrey said.

Sgt. 1st Class John Weaver of Task Force 2-69 Armor, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Benning, Ga., monitors radio traffic from temporary headquarters near Kifl, Iraq.