State Dept. Won't Order Diplomats to Iraq

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

The State Department expects to announce, perhaps as early as today, that volunteers have filled all 48 open jobs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for next year and that it will not order any foreign service officers to work there against their will, officials said yesterday.

Volunteers for the last three or four positions are currently being vetted. Once that process is completed, a senior department official said, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will ask personnel officers to assure her that everyone selected "does in fact have the right skill sets" and meets all requirements before an announcement is made.

Rice's decision late last month to order diplomats to serve in Iraq if enough volunteers could not be found caused an uproar at State, where large-scale "directed assignments" have not been used since the Vietnam War. But while the controversy is expected to subside for now, internal strains over personnel shortages and policy are likely to reappear as long as Iraq continues to be a dangerous diplomatic assignment and to drain resources from other posts.

"The secretary reserves the right, now and in the future," to send officers where they are needed, said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the formal announcement was still forthcoming.

The U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq has grown steadily and is by far the world's largest, with hundreds of American diplomatic, technical and administrative personnel. Foreign service officers, who are not accompanied by family members, serve one-year tours of duty there, and an estimated 250 diplomats will have to be replaced next summer.

Most midsize U.S. embassies have 30 to 40 diplomatic positions; smaller embassies have fewer than a dozen.

The State Department employs about 57,000 people, though the vast majority of them are foreign nationals working overseas. The U.S. foreign service totals 11,000, of which 6,500 are diplomats and the rest are support staff including technicians and office workers.

Personnel shortfalls have meant that embassies worldwide are staffed at about 75 percent of authorized strength. The embassy in Iraq, however, is staffed at about 94 percent. Since the embassy opened in 2004, all those who have served there -- a total of as many as 1,500 -- have been volunteers.

Last summer, Rice ordered that upcoming vacancies in Iraq be filled before any other new assignments were approved. Although State's annual bidding cycle for postings in the coming year normally begins in November, a shortfall of 48 new Iraq volunteers by mid-October led to fears that there would not be enough. Personnel officials notified 250 "qualified" individuals that they could be ordered to Baghdad next summer if the jobs were not filled by this week.

Some diplomats protested that Rice moved too quickly and left a public implication that they were trying to avoid Iraq service, when many were simply waiting to see whether they would receive their preferred next assignment. "That's the way our system works," one said. "You bid for Paris along with 30 other people, and when you don't get it, you volunteer for Iraq."

John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats' union, said yesterday that "if State had gone through the normal assignment cycle, this is how it would have turned out."

"After all the bad publicity indicating that the foreign service would not step forward, it in fact turned out -- as most of us thought -- that they did step forward as volunteers to staff Iraq," Naland said.

Blogs and talk shows in recent weeks have been filled with criticism of the foreign service, comparing its members unfavorably to the hundreds of thousands of military personnel who have served in Iraq. Some of the disparagement has come from within the military, causing deep resentment among diplomats and exacerbating rifts between the State and Defense departments.

"Not a single person, not one, has had to be ordered" to serve in Iraq, said union Vice President Steve Kashkett. "And not a single direct assignment has been needed."

At a contentious town hall meeting at State two weeks ago, some diplomats questioned the size of the Baghdad embassy and asked whether they could be expected to do their jobs within security restraints that severely limit travel outside the fortified Green Zone.

Several said the department has failed to provide adequate preparation and training for the assignment, noting that those sent to do similar jobs during the Vietnam War were given as much as six months of lessons in Vietnamese language and culture, were sent to combat training and were provided with a gun for personal protection.

Those sent to Iraq receive a short course -- dubbed "crash and bang" -- that includes four days of weapons familiarization and a week of defensive driving basics. The weapons training, one diplomat said, does not include firing practice, and diplomats in Iraq are prohibited from carrying weapons. The driving course, he said, is of little use since they are also barred from driving there and are transported in convoys by armed guards.

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