Diplomats Duke It Out Over Forced Assignments in Iraq

A bitter dispute over forced assignments to Iraq has erupted inside the State Department with diplomats taking decidedly undiplomatic potshots at one another.

The latest public salvo came Tuesday with a harshly critical post on the department's official blog in which a foreign service officer in Iraq skewered those who spoke out against the prospect of ordered tours of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and outlying provinces.

The message, titled "A Letter From Iraq to My Overwrought Colleagues," accused opponents of being spoiled elitists whose revolt against so-called "directed assignments" is embarrassing.

"To my vexed and overwrought colleagues, I say take a deep breath and calm down," wrote John Matel, a career diplomat working in a provincial reconstruction team in al-Anbar province. "All of us volunteered for this kind of work and we have enjoyed a pretty sweet lifestyle most of our careers."

"This sound and fury at Foggy Bottom truly signifies nothing," he said, referring to the State Department's headquarters. "Get over it! I do not think many Americans feel sorry for us and it is embarrassing for people with our privileges to paint ourselves as victims."

Emotions have run high since last week when several hundred diplomats at a town hall meeting at the State Department vented anger and frustration at the possibility of being forced to serve in Iraq in the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam. One called ordered tours in Iraq a "potential death sentence."

The contentious hourlong exchange between senior officials and rank-and-file diplomats prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to fire off a cable to all U.S. diplomats around the world in a bid to quell the revolt by reminding them of their obligation to serve wherever they're needed.

It has been a main topic of water cooler, corridor and e-mail conversations among State Department employees, according to more than a dozen foreign service personnel contacted by The Associated Press. Nearly all said they were struck by the vehement tone and tenor of the exchanges.

The internal bickering had remained largely out of the public view until Tuesday when the editors of the department's two-month-old blog, Dipnote, decided to publish Matel's comments.

Heath Kern, who runs the digital outreach section in the State Department's Bureau of Public Affairs, said her office had asked Matel to write about his Iraq experience for the blog but had not solicited anything from him about the controversy. She said opposing views would not be barred from the discussion.

"In addition, as with all other entries on Dipnote, we will post comments regardless of the point of view. The only exceptions being profanity, hate speech, personal attacks and foreign language," she said.

Matel's comments don't violate those criteria, Kern said, but his comments were harsh.

"I find the sentiments expressed by some at the town hall meeting deeply offensive," he wrote. "What are they implying about me and my choice? And what do they say to our colleagues in the military, who left friends and family to come here and do their jobs?"

"Calling Iraq a death sentence is just way over the top," he added. "I volunteered to come here aware of the risks but confident that I will come safely home, as do the vast majority of soldiers and Marines, who have a lot riskier jobs than we FSOs (foreign service officers) do."

A photograph accompanying the post depicts several diplomats clad in bulletproof vests and combat helmets speaking to unprotected Iraqis in civilian clothes, one of whom is wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

State Department managers are moving toward a decision on whether they will have to order diplomats to fill 48 vacant posts that will open at the Baghdad embassy and provinces next year. Between 200 to 300 diplomats have been notified they may be forced to go to Iraq if not enough volunteer for the jobs.

An "Iraq Staffing Working Group" has been established and will meet with those identified and any volunteers for the positions beginning on Wednesday, ahead of next week's deadline for responses, according to a department-wide internal notice obtained by The Associated Press.

"We understand that many of those considering volunteering for Iraq, as well as those selected as prime candidates for positions in Iraq, may have questions and concerns," the notice said. "We remain committed to transparency and to ensuring a free flow of information."