Forced Iraq Postings 'May Be Necessary'

Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said that filling the remaining U.S. Embassy job openings in Baghdad remains
Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said that filling the remaining U.S. Embassy job openings in Baghdad remains "the Department's priority." (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2007

Four days before a deadline for Foreign Service officers to volunteer to go to Iraq or face the prospect of being ordered there, the State Department notified employees yesterday that "about half" of 48 open assignments there for next year have been filled.

"This reduces but does not eliminate the possibility that directed assignments may be necessary," Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte wrote in an e-mailed update. Filling the remaining jobs is still "the Department's priority," he said, adding that he is optimistic that more will volunteer.

With 26 positions still open, however, it appeared increasingly unlikely that they will all be filled by Tuesday's deadline. Both Negroponte and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have made clear in recent days that they intend to proceed with a mandatory call-up if spots remain unstaffed.

"If I need somebody to serve in Iraq, they have to serve there," Rice said in an interview on Friday with the Dallas Morning News.

Rice praised the Foreign Service and noted that "large numbers" have volunteered for Iraq duty in the past four years. She said that widespread news reports indicating diplomatic dissension over possible directed assignments were "overblown."

The Foreign Service, Rice said, resented "the idea that they don't want to serve in the highest priority security and national security issue for the United States."

But the plan to order diplomats to take posts in Iraq if enough volunteers cannot be found -- the first time forced assignments have been contemplated since the Vietnam War -- has been controversial within and outside the service.

State's public blog, Dipnote, has been flooded with comments since an Iraq-based Foreign Service officer, John Matel, posted an open letter to "my vexed and overwrought colleagues" this past Tuesday.

Matel was responding to news reports of a State Department town hall meeting, attended by hundreds of employees, in which questions and complaints about the decision were voiced to loud applause. Some objected to the way that Foreign Service officers were notified of the decision, in official e-mails that arrived after it was reported in the news media. Others questioned the overall advisability of deploying unarmed diplomats, with limited security training, to the Iraq war zone; the massive size of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the world's largest; and a lack of medical and psychological support on return.

Many of the blog comments, from both Foreign Service officers and civilians, criticized those who complained for embarrassing the diplomatic corps and reminded that they all swore an oath to serve where the government sent them.

Rice previewed possible problems in Iraq last June, when she ordered that positions there be filled before any other openings, in Washington or abroad, were made available. In September, department managers predicted a shortfall of 48 volunteers to fill Iraq job vacancies expected in summer 2009. About 250 qualified individuals were identified and informed late last month that they were eligible to be ordered to Iraq if enough of them did not volunteer. After the Tuesday deadline, an internal personnel panel will determine who will be directed to fill remaining openings.

Some Foreign Service officers have questioned why the department insisted on moving so early toward directed assignments. Bidding and selection for other mid-2009 postings takes place in December, and many are waiting to see whether they receive their preferred posts before deciding whether to volunteer for Iraq.

The controversy has exacerbated antagonism between the U.S. military and the diplomatic corps. Some of the blog comments praised soldiers who accept dangerous assignments without question and criticized the Foreign Service for raising questions. Such criticism, which has also been expressed to the news media by the military in Iraq, raises hackles inside State, where the Foreign Service has far smaller resources.

"Out of 6,500 Foreign Service generalists, 68 percent of them are serving overseas," many in hardship posts, said one Baghdad-based diplomat, and more than 1,200 have already served voluntarily in Iraq. "Of 1.4 million in military service, only 20 percent" are overseas at any given time, he said.

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