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US State Department Defends Forced Assignments to Iraq

The U.S. State Department Thursday defended plans to begin forced assignments of diplomats to Iraq because of a lack of volunteers willing to serve there. It is the first time the U.S. diplomatic service has faced involuntary assignments since the Vietnam war. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Only about 50 positions in Iraq are to be filled through involuntary assignments out of a U.S. diplomatic corps that numbers more than 11,000 foreign service officers.

But the decision to force some diplomats to work in Iraq - or face possible dismissal - has triggered strong emotions at the State Department, where the last such involuntary assignments occurred during the Vietnam war in the late 1960's.

Word of the policy move came in e-mail and a cable sent to State Department employees late last Friday. But because of the timing of the announcement, most affected employees first heard of it in media reports Saturday.

There are currently about 250 foreign service jobs in Iraq, at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and in province-level assignments.

Volunteers have been found for 200 of those jobs but the rest, to go to Iraq early next year, will be selected involuntarily from among several hundred officers determined to have the necessary experience and language skills.

The policy was explained at a town hall meeting of State Department employees Wednesday that featured sharp exchanges between senior department officials and staff members concerned, among other things about the safety of the makeshift U.S. embassy in Baghdad, a former Saddam Hussein palace.

The facility been hit by insurgent mortar and rocket fire several times in recent months, causing a number of casualties. One 36-year State Department veteran, Jack Crotty - a former U.S. official with NATO - said diplomatic personnel in Iraq are not adequately protected:

Incoming [fire] is coming in every day," said Jack Crotty. "Rockets are hitting the Green Zone. So if you forced-assign people, that is really shifting the terms of what we're all about. It's one thing if someone believes in what's going on over there and volunteers. But it's another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment. And I'm sorry, but basically that's a potential death sentence, and you know it.

Crotty's remarks were greeted with applause from many in the audience of about 300 employes and the State Department's Foreign Service Director-General, Harry Thomas ended the meeting at that point, saying any suggestion that he did not care about the well-being of the Baghdad staff was insulting.

Earlier in the session Thomas reminded the gathering that all foreign service officers, when they begin government service, take an oath to serve wherever needed and cannot pick and choose where they are assigned:

"I want to make clear to you all that this is an obligation that we must do," said Harry Thomas. "We cannot shrink from our duty. We have all agreed to world-wide availability and that is without dispute."

Parts of the contentious meeting were carried by U.S. broadcast networks, and State Department officials Thursday sought to counter what they said was a mistaken impression of a revolt within department ranks over Iraq policy and assignments.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that since the U.S. embassy in Baghdad opened in 2004, more than 1,500 staffers have served in Iraq voluntarily, and that 94 per cent of the department's Iraq jobs are currently filled, a higher proportion than many other overseas posts:

"In some of the reporting, just some of the reporting, I've seen the sense that somehow the foreign service is not stepping up to the plate, and that somehow people in the foreign service are turning away or trying to avoid service in Baghdad," said McCormack. "Now every individual is going to make their own decisions about where they want to serve. But both the numbers, and some of these anecdotes, illustrate for you the readiness and the willingness of people in the State Department and the foreign service to step up to this duty."

McCormack said that since the announcement of potential forced assignments, an additional 15 officers had volunteered for Iraq duty but said it is unclear whether they have the required skills and background.

Most of the nearly 50 vacancies are in provincial reconstruction teams, PRT's, in which U.S. diplomats and civilian specialists work with local Iraqi officials on small-scale war rebuilding and development projects.

The PRT's are a key initiative of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and have been increased in number from 10 to more than 25 in the past year, despite problems inherent in protecting and supporting widely dispersed and remote diplomatic teams.