The State Department wants to slash the number of years foreign employees must work at U.S. embassies or consulates before they can apply for American citizenship.

To reward foreigners who have worked in difficult and dangerous conditions and may be at risk, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the department said Tuesday it would ask Congress to cut the requirement from 15 years to three.

"We want to do right by people who have served well and honorably on behalf of their country and the United States," said department spokesman Sean McCormack. "We think that this effort should move forward as quickly as possible."

The proposal would give the secretary of state authority "under exceptional circumstances" to permit foreign service nationals to apply sooner for special immigrant visas.

Although the rule change would apply to all 37,092 foreigners working at U.S. embassies around the world, officials said it was crafted with those in Iraq and Afghanistan in mind.

There are 160 foreign service nationals now working at the U.S Embassy in Baghdad and 244 at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, according to State Department figures.

It was not immediately clear how many of those have already served the proposed new three-year minimum, but many have expressed concern that working for the U.S. government has exposed themselves and their families to danger.

If Congress agrees to the modification, McCormack said, the program would be closely monitored to ensure that diplomatic missions were not left without manpower.

The proposal was announced earlier Tuesday at an international refugee conference in Geneva by Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky.

She also said the Bush administration "endorsed the intent" of draft legislation that would grant similar privileges to as many as 1,500 interpreters now working for the Pentagon and State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan.