WASHINGTON – The State Department has begun to identify diplomats who could be forced to serve in Iraq next year unless enough volunteers come forward to fill about 300 positions, The Associated Press has learned.
A department-wide notice issued Tuesday says officials have looked through the files of all foreign service officers who will be applying or "bidding" for new jobs in 2009 and compiled a roster of candidates who are "particularly well-qualified" to work at the American Embassy in Baghdad and in outlying provinces.
Those on the list will be notified of their status this week and urged to volunteer, according to the internal notice, which was also sent by cable to all U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. If positions remain unfilled after the summer, they will become the core of a group of "prime candidates" who may be forced to go to Iraq, it says.
The announcements, accompanied by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's personal appeal for volunteers, were obtained by the AP.
"I am asking that you consider joining this highly motivated team of professionals as we look for volunteers for positions opening in 2009," Rice said. She recorded a video of the message, which also deals with jobs coming open next year in Afghanistan, that is to be shown on the State Department's internal television network.
"Our brave volunteers are doing a tough, but necessary, job far away from family and friends," she said. "Employees and families deserve the nation's gratitude. I can assure you that they have mine, and I encourage you to join our teams in Baghdad and Kabul."
The notices say the department hopes and expects that the call will be answered. But if not, they say the department will start selecting "prime candidates" for compulsory Iraq duty.
A similar move late last year for 48 vacant jobs in Iraq caused an uproar when some foreign service officers objected to forced tours in a war zone in what would have been the largest diplomatic call-up since the Vietnam War.
That furor over so-called "directed assignments" in October and November petered out when enough volunteers eventually stepped up, but not before it made national headlines and sparked harsh criticism from commentators. As a result, the department decided to begin the process of staffing Iraq earlier with a "targeted recruitment effort."
As part of that effort, State Department Director General Harry Thomas said in Tuesday's announcement that his office is now determining which diplomats are "particularly well-qualified to staff key positions in Iraq" that will come open in the summer of 2009.
"We will inform those individuals in the coming days that they are part of a pool of the best qualified potential bidders who will be the primary, but not exclusive, focus of recruitment efforts for Iraq," he said.
"In addition, should (I) determine that identification procedures need to be used ... to staff unfilled positions, these individuals will also comprise the primary pool for identification," Thomas said.
The notices did not say how many diplomats were on the "particularly well qualified" list or exactly when the department would decide if it has to move to directed assignments, which means ordering diplomats to work in certain locations under threat of dismissal unless they have a compelling reason, such as a health condition, not to go.
Since the U.S. reopened its embassies in Baghdad and Kabul, positions there have been filled entirely with volunteers who serve one-year tours and are offered numerous incentives including significant pay boosts, extra vacation time and choice of their next post. But there are serious concerns that the pool of diplomats to draw on is dwindling.
More than 20 percent of the nearly 7,000-strong foreign service have already worked in either Iraq or Afghanistan and a growing number have done tours in both.
And some diplomats have privately expressed unease about volunteering for Iraq amid uncertainty over how the administration following President Bush will deal with Iraq, and how that might affect security there or change Washington's focus on the country.
At least three foreign service personnel — two diplomatic security agents and one political officer — have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.