WASHINGTON – Several hundred U.S. diplomats are venting anger and frustration about the State Department's decision to force foreign service officers to take jobs in Iraq. Some liken it to a "potential death sentence."
In a contentious hourlong town-hall meeting at the department on Wednesday, the angry diplomats peppered officials responsible for the order with often hostile complaints about the largest diplomatic call-up since the Vietnam War. Announced last week, it will require some diplomats, under threat of dismissal, to serve at the embassy in Baghdad and in reconstruction teams in outlying provinces.
Many expressed serious misgivings about the ethics of sending diplomats against their will to work in a war zone, where the embassy staff is largely confined to the protected "Green Zone," as the department reviews use of private security guards to protect its staff.
"Incoming is coming in every day, rockets are hitting the Green Zone," said Jack Croddy, a senior foreign service officer who once worked as a political adviser with NATO forces.
He and others confronted Foreign Service Director General Harry Thomas, who approved the move to "directed assignments" late Friday to make up for a lack of volunteers willing to go to Iraq.
"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?"
No U.S. diplomats have been killed in Iraq, although the security situation is precarious and completion of a new fortified embassy compound and living quarters has been beset by logistical and construction problems.
Still Croddy's remarks were met with loud and sustained applause from the approximately 300 diplomats at the meeting.
Thomas responded by saying the comments were "filled with inaccuracies." But he did not elaborate until challenged by the head of the diplomats' union, the American Foreign Service Association, who, like Croddy and others, demanded to know why many learned of the decision from news reports.
Thomas took full responsibility for the late notification. But he objected when the association's president, John Naland, said a recent survey found only 12 percent of the union's membership believed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was "fighting for them."
"That's their right, but they're wrong," Thomas said, prompting a testy exchange.
"Sometimes, if it's 88 to 12, maybe the 88 percent are correct," Naland said.
"Eighty-eight percent of the country believed in slavery at one time; was that correct?" shot back Thomas, who is black, in a remark that drew boos from the crowd. "Don't you or anybody else stand there and tell me I don't care about my colleagues. I am insulted," Thomas added.
Rice was not present for the meeting. Her top adviser on Iraq, David Satterfield, attended.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack acknowledged the session was "pretty emotional." He praised Thomas for holding it, and he stressed that all diplomats sign an oath to serve, obligating them to be available to work anywhere.
"It's a pretty sensitive topic and understandably, some people are going to have some pretty strong feelings about it," McCormack told reporters after the meeting. "Ultimately, our mission in Iraq is national policy. It is the foreign policy set out by the secretary as well as the president of the United States."
He added that the results of the union's poll about Rice were "very unfortunate" because "she is deeply concerned with, by and involved in the management decisions regarding the Foreign Service (and) working as hard as she possibly can to get the resources for the State Department."
Other diplomats at the meeting did not object to the idea of directed assignments. But they questioned why the State Department had been slow to respond to the medical needs of those who had served in dangerous posts.
"I would just urge you, now that we are looking at compulsory service in a war zone, that we have a moral imperative as an agency to take care of people who ... come back with war wounds," said Rachel Schneller, a diplomat who served in Basra, Iraq. She said the department had been unresponsive to requests for mental heath care.
"I asked for treatment, and I didn't get any of it," she said in comments greeted with a standing ovation.
Thomas, in his job for just a few months, said the department was working on improving its response to stress-related disorders that "we did not anticipate."
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 the 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.
More than 1,200 of the department's 11,500 Foreign Service officers have served in Iraq since 2003. But the generous incentives have not persuaded enough diplomats to volunteer for duty in Baghdad or with the provincial reconstruction teams.
The move to 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.