WASHINGTON – The State Department heaved a sigh of relief on Friday as it said enough diplomats have volunteered for Iraq duty to put off, at least for now, plans to force foreign service officers to work at the Baghdad embassy and outlying provinces.
After weeks of internal rancor and negative publicity over a revolt against the potential for so-called "directed assignments" to Iraq, the department indicated the step would not be necessary and praised those diplomats who stepped forward to fill 48 vacant spots that will come open next summer.
"We have voluntary candidates identified for all the jobs," spokesman Sean McCormack said, adding that a formal announcement on the matter would be made once final "bureaucratic and administrative" procedures are complete. That is expected by Monday, he told reporters.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will then send a cable to all U.S. diplomatic personnel worldwide informing them of the decision, but reserving the right, if necessary in the future, to order diplomats to serve in Iraq under threat of dismissal, officials said. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the cable is still being drafted.
Still, McCormack praised those in the Foreign Service who came forward to fill the jobs.
"It's very positive," he said. "It's very positive for the State Department and the Foreign Service that ... they stepped up to the challenge. It is testament to the dedication of the people in the State Department and their willingness to take on the hard challenges in the tough places."
The prospect of the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam had caused an uproar among the 11,500-member Foreign Service. At a contentious town hall meeting late last month, the strength of their opposition came into public view as some diplomats protested the forced assignments, citing safety and 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.
But the complaints were a deep embarrassment to the department and led Rice and her deputy, John Negroponte, to remind diplomats of their duty to serve their government anywhere they are needed.
More than 1,500 diplomats have volunteered to work in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Still, the resistance to forced assignments generated bitter criticism of the diplomatic corps; some Internet commentators accused the foreign service of cowardice and treason.
The union that represents U.S. diplomats had questioned the need for directed assignments and said it hoped the resolution would allay fears about the loyalty of State Department employees.
"Whoever may have had doubts about the foreign service, they have been proven wrong," said John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association. "We're proud of the people who have served and who are going and I am sure that a year from now, the foreign service will step up again."
At the Oct. 31 town hall meeting, hundreds of diplomats applauded when one likened a forced tour in Iraq to a "potential death sentence." Some at the session 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.
The debate, often in nasty exchanges, has surfaced on the State Department's official blog. Last week, the Web log posted a critical message from a career diplomat in Iraq who accused opponents of directed assignments of being spoiled elitists and suggested they are "wimps and weenies."
More than 170 people, including some who identify themselves as foreign service or military officers, had entered the fray on the Dipnote blog as of Thursday, making it one of the most popular posts the two-month old venture has published.