US diplomats resisting Iraq posting


Washington : As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to Turkey and the Middle East on a major diplomatic mission this week, tensions are building at State Department headquarters in Washington – the physical heart of US diplomacy.

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Growing worry among US foreign service officers over the danger of postings in Iraq has prompted some to discard their usual diplomatic discretion and even speak out against their boss.

After days of hearing complaints, Rice was planning to send out a cable worldwide discussing the decision to force some diplomats to serve in Iraq, while also encouraging people to volunteer, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.

At a tense, highly emotional town hall-style meeting Wednesday, the discontent boiled over among diplomats alarmed by the prospect that up to 48 foreign service officials could be ordered to make up a shortfall of volunteers for posts in Iraq.

Adding to the air of suspicion, the meeting was not broadcast on the department’s internal television channel or intranet site, as is the usual practice. McCormack said Thursday that the meeting would be re-aired through the internal systems.

Three foreign service employees have been killed in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003, and another died of natural causes.

“No matter how many precautions you take, there are risks,” McCormack said.

The Bush administration moved to defend Rice, pointing out that foreign service officers take an oath to serve their country and must go where they are assigned.

“The president understands that service in a war zone can be very difficult,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Rice knows about the concerns and has “fought very hard” to make sure US diplomats are “protected while they are over there”, Perino said.

According to a poll taken by the diplomats’ professional union – the American Foreign Service Association – only 12 percent of officers said they believed Rice was fighting for them, the Washington Post reported Thursday.

McCormack defended Rice, saying that she kept her “finger on the pulse” by getting “around the building quite a bit”, holding “briefings with the folks who don’t have the big offices and fancy titles” and by working out in the gym and using the public cafeteria.

McCormack noted that the State Department has filled about 94 percent of its jobs in Iraq with volunteers – a considerably higher rate than worldwide. More than 1,500 diplomats have volunteered for Iraq service since 2003.

If the government does not get enough volunteers by Nov 10, it will have to issue mandatory assignments by the end of the month for the first time since the Vietnam war, McCormack said.

Directives were sent out to about 200 prime candidates last week in the final bid for volunteers. Fifteen people who were not among them have since stepped forward and were being vetted for their skills and medical qualifications, McCormack said.

“This is one of the most important, if not the most important, foreign policy, national security priorities that the president has laid out for the State Department,” McCormack said.

“We might get to the point where we have to remind the people that they signed (up for) a duty. We might get to the point where we have to ask them to leave,” he said.

Some of the vacant slots were added by Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Baghdad, to help with rebuilding Iraq. A number of former US ambassadors are already occupying senior management positions in the US embassy in Baghdad, an indication of the overall willingness to serve inside the State Department, McCormack said.

The US has about 11,500 foreign service officers.

At the meeting Wednesday, some complained about the size of the Baghdad embassy, which is slated to be the US’ largest embassy in the world, and the danger of trying to work in its fortified position inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, the Post reported.

Iraq is a hardship assignment, which means family members are not allowed to go along, an added stress for many diplomats, McCormack noted.

Responding to a reporter who quoted a diplomat as saying that assignment to Iraq was a “potential death sentence”, Perino said that President George W. Bush would not question anyone’s personal feelings.

“If that’s how the individual feels, then that’s how he or she feels,” Perino said.