WASHINGTON – The State Department has extended a window for diplomats to volunteer for Iraq duty in the hope the Bush administration can avoid ordering potentially unwilling candidates to serve in the combat zone, officials said Tuesday.
The department has put off until at least the end of the week the process of selecting foreign service officers for so-called "directed assignments" to Iraq as it looks for more volunteers to fill 48 spots that will come open at the Baghdad embassy and outlying provinces this summer, the officials said.
Amid a furor over the possibility that some foreign service officers may be forced to go to Iraq in the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam, U.S. officials said that as of Tuesday morning, 25 volunteers had already been approved for those jobs.
Twelve of the 23 remaining posts have been tentatively filled, raising hopes that the 11 open positions can be filled with volunteers and leading the department's Bureau of Human Resources to delay the final selection process until Friday, the officials said.
Personnel panels had been due to begin Tuesday the process of choosing from among 200 to 300 diplomats identified as "prime candidates" for Iraq. Those without compelling medical or family reasons who refused to go would have been subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal.
Despite the delay, the officials stressed that not all of those identified were off the hook yet and that there was still a chance that a small number of diplomats might be ordered to Iraq.
"We very much intend to move forward with this process of identifying people from the prime candidates list and, in the absence of volunteers to fill those remaining slots, assigning them to those positions in Iraq," deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
"It is possible, though, that more people will come forward over the next few days and ultimately make for a very small number who might have to be direct assigned," he told reporters.
Harry Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service, informed Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte of the rising number of volunteers on Friday. At the same time, Thomas said he would delay the selection process until Nov. 16 at which time he would re-evaluate the situation and decide how to proceed, officials said.
Thomas' decision last month to begin the process of directed assignments for posts in Iraq has sparked a decidedly undiplomatic dispute in the foreign service that has since spilled into the public arena after news reports emerged of a contentious State Department town hall meeting on the topic on Oct. 31.
At the meeting, hundreds of diplomats applauded when one of their colleagues likened a forced tour in Iraq to a "potential death sentence" while some questioned the ethics of ordering unarmed civilians into a war zone and expressed concerns about a lack of training and medical care for those who have served.
Others diplomats have reacted angrily to the revolt, noting that foreign service officers take a duty to represent their government anywhere in the world, a point made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a cable sent to all U.S. diplomatic on Nov. 2.
The opposing sides are now engaged in an often nasty exchange that has surfaced on the State Department's official blog, which last week posted a harshly critical message from a career diplomat in Iraq who accused those opposed to directed assignments of being spoiled elitists, suggesting they are "wimps and weenies."
Nearly 140 people, including some who identify themselves as foreign service officers, had entered the fray on the Dipnote blog as of Tuesday, making it one of the most popular posts the two-month old venture has published.
More than 1,500 of roughly 11,500 foreign service officers have already served voluntarily in Iraq, where most are confined to the heavily fortified "Green Zone" due to security concerns.
Three foreign service personnel -- two diplomatic security agents and one political officer -- have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
The union that represents diplomats says the situation in Iraq is precarious and the completion of a new embassy compound and living quarters in Baghdad has been beset by logistical and construction problems.
The move to so-called "directed assignments" is rare but not unprecedented.
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.