Diplomats Warned of Possible Mandatory Service in Iraq

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The State Department has warned U.S. diplomats that they may be required to serve in Iraq next year if there are insufficient volunteers to fill job openings there, U.S. officials said.

The possibility of "directed assignments" was first raised last fall, when State projected a shortfall of about 50 volunteers for positions at the Baghdad embassy and other locations in Iraq in 2008. Although those jobs eventually were filled without compulsory postings, the possibility of being forced to serve in a war zone caused deep unease at State.

Diplomats will be invited next month to bid on about 300 positions that will open up next year in Iraq, according to a cable sent to State employees and diplomats last week. With more than 700 State Department personnel, the Baghdad embassy is the largest U.S. mission in the world.

Although the next bidding cycle for worldwide diplomatic jobs does not officially begin until summer, State decided to move early on the Iraq jobs, said one official who was not authorized to speak on the record. The cable, first reported yesterday by the Associated Press, said, "We face a growing challenge of supply and demand in the 2009 staffing cycle."

As in the previous cycle, officials said that directed assignments -- which every officer agrees to upon entry into the Foreign Service -- would be necessary only if the number of volunteers falls short.

In a hearing yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked lawmakers to approve her pending request to fund an additional 1,100 Foreign Service officers and 300 new personnel for the U.S Agency for International Development. There are now about 6,500 Foreign Service officers and at least that many other U.S. citizen employees. Since 2004, Congress has refused annual requests for 300 new officers.

"Right now, I don't even have enough people to fill positions" worldwide, Rice told the House Armed Services Committee, saying that she had frozen 10 percent of all authorized positions outside Iraq and Afghanistan to supply additional personnel to those embassies.

At a town hall meeting inside the department last fall, a number of personnel questioned the possibility of forced assignments, saying that diplomats received inadequate training before deploying to Iraq and insufficient medical and psychological care on their return.

The complaints caused a divide within the Foreign Service between those who raised objections and those who criticized them as complainers who were unwilling to undertake risk and made the department look bad.

Rice said yesterday that those who attended the meeting were "self-selected" and that many of their colleagues were "absolutely offended" by their remarks. "I was deeply offended myself and deeply sorry that these people . . . went out of their way to, to my view, cast a very bad light on the Foreign Service," she told the House committee.

Meanwhile, the State Department announced this week that it had taken possession of the new $700 million embassy complex in Baghdad's Green Zone after lengthy delays amid criticism of unsafe and shoddy construction by its Kuwaiti contractor. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker said he "would anticipate the move into the apartments and into some of the office space at the end of May, beginning of June."

The compound will provide fortified housing for up to 1,000 embassy employees. Moving into the main embassy buildings will be further delayed while office space is found and reconfigured for about 250 military personnel that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has requested be located there.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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