WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to quell a revolt among U.S. diplomats angry over moves to force foreign service officers to work in Iraq under threat of dismissal.
Rice plans to send a cable to all U.S. embassies and missions abroad explaining the decision to begin the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam, following a contentious "town hall meeting" at the department in which diplomats raised deep concern about being ordered to work in Iraq, the State Department said.
"The secretary is going to send out a cable worldwide to people talking about this decision as well as encouraging people to serve in Iraq," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, adding the message would be distributed on Thursday.
He stressed the cable was not a "direct response" to Wednesday's unusually hostile session, but said "it speaks to some of the concerns that were aired in that town hall meeting."
Rice, who did not attend the meeting, was also making clear in the cable that foreign service officers have an obligation to uphold the oaths they took to carry out the policies of the government and be available to serve anywhere in the world, McCormack said.
Despite the resistance to mandatory Iraq duty displayed at the meeting, McCormack noted that since 2002, more than 1,500 U.S. diplomats have served at the Baghdad embassy and in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in outlying areas and that 94 percent of the positions there are currently filled.
He took pains to point out that the diplomatic corps is not shirking its responsibilities and noted that since the call-up to fill 48 vacant Iraq posts was announced last Friday, 15 diplomats have volunteered to work there. He acknowledged, however, that that represents only 0.1 percent of the roughly 11,500-member foreign service.
Rice's cable was drafted after the town hall meeting and in the wake of widespread news reports highlighting the anger and frustration of many diplomats who attended and applauded loudly when one of their colleagues likened a forced tour in Iraq to a "potential death sentence," said the official.
Several hundred foreign service officers participated in the gathering at which several diplomats, backed by the vocal support of their colleagues there, vehemently complained about the prospect of so-called "directed assignments" to Iraq to make up for a lack of volunteers.
"Incoming is coming in every day, rockets are hitting the Green Zone," said Jack Croddy, a senior foreign service office, referring to the highly fortified area of Baghdad where the embassy is located.
"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," Croddy said. "I'm sorry, but basically that's a potential death sentence and you know it. ... Who will raise our children if we are dead or seriously wounded?"
His remarks were met with loud applause.
Although no U.S. diplomats have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, the security situation is precarious and completion of a new embassy compound and living quarters has been beset by logistical and construction problems.
Despite the concerns, the director general of the foreign service, Harry Thomas, told those at the meeting that the decision would not be rescinded.
"This is an obligation we must do," Thomas said. "We cannot shrink from that duty."
Other diplomats said they were troubled that they might be sent to Iraq without the proper training or might suffer mental or physical injuries for which the State Department might not be able to provide medical care.
Under the new order, 200 to 300 diplomats have been identified as "prime candidates" to fill 48 vacancies that will open next year at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and in Iraqi provinces. Those notified have 10 days to accept or reject the position. If not enough say yes, some will be ordered to go.
Only those with compelling reasons, such as a medical condition or extreme personal hardship, will be exempt from disciplinary action. Diplomats forced into service in Iraq will receive the same extra hardship pay, vacation time and choice of future assignments as those who have volunteered.
In 1969, an entire class of entry-level diplomats was sent to Vietnam. On a smaller scale, diplomats were required to work at various embassies in West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.