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Rice tries to quell fury over forced Iraq postings

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to quell a revolt among U.S. diplomats angry over attempts to force foreign service officers to work in Iraq or face dismissal.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to quell a revolt among U.S. diplomats angry over attempts to force foreign service officers to work in Iraq or face dismissal.

Rice plans to send a cable to all U.S. embassies and missions abroad explaining the decision to launch the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam, following a contentious town hall meeting on Wednesday where angry diplomats raised deep concern about the “potential death sentence” of being ordered to work in Iraq, the State Department said.

“The secretary is going to send out a cable worldwide to people talking about this decision as well as encouraging people to serve in Iraq,” spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, saying the message would be distributed Thursday.

He stressed the cable was not a “direct response” to Wednesday’s unusually hostile session, but that “it speaks to some of the concerns that were aired in that town hall meeting.”

Rice, who did not attend the meeting, was also making clear in the cable that foreign service officers have an obligation to uphold the oaths they took to carry out the policies of the government and be available to serve anywhere in the world, McCormack said.

Positions largely filledDespite the resistance to mandatory Iraq duty displayed at the meeting, McCormack noted that since 2002, more than 1,500 U.S. diplomats have served at the Baghdad embassy and in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in outlying areas and that 94 percent of the positions there are currently filled.

He took pains to point out that the diplomatic corps is not shirking its responsibilities and to note that since the call-up to fill 48 vacant Iraq posts was announced last Friday, 15 diplomats have volunteered to work there. He acknowledged, however, that that represents only 0.1 percent of the roughly 11,500-member foreign service.

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino told reporters that President Bush understood the diplomats’ concerns but believed that both Rice and the foreign service would be able to handle the challenge in Iraq.

“The president understands that at a time of war it is distressing for some individuals to serve in those areas,” she said. “The president is concerned, but he also has confidence that Secretary Rice will handle this matter in a way that is caring for the people at the foreign service, but also ensures that the mission that the United States is on is supplemented by the foreign service officers who took an oath in order to serve their country.”

Pelosi: Revolt indication of Iraq 'failure'On Capitol Hill, reaction to the diplomatic concerns broke down along partisan lines.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she thought the revolt was an indication of the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the “failure” of Bush’s Iraq policies.

“People are patriotic, they take hardship duty all over the world to represent our country and we’re very proud of them when they do,” she told a news conference. “And so, when they resist, it’s very unusual and should be a very clear message about the direction of this war, the prospect for success in it and the lack of interest in people in serving our country in that way.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, said he intends to suggest that diplomats who refuse to serve in Iraq be replaced by wounded veterans.

“Let’s replace these reluctant Nellies with America’s finest citizens,” he said in a statement. “Our wounded warriors will serve our country efficiently, effectively and with undying patriotism.”

Iraq a 'potential death sentence'Rice’s was sending the cable in the wake of widespread news reports of the meeting at which many diplomats applauded loudly when one of their colleagues likened a forced tour in Iraq to a “potential death sentence.”

Several hundred foreign service officers participated in the gathering at which several diplomats, backed by the vocal support of their colleagues there, vehemently complained about the prospect of so-called “directed assignments” to Iraq to make up for a lack of volunteers.

“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,” said Jack Croddy, a senior foreign service officer. “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?”

The State Department says 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 security situation is precarious and the completion of a new, heavily secured embassy compound and living quarters has been beset by logistical and construction problems.

Official: Decision won't be rescindedDespite the concerns, the director general of the foreign service, Harry Thomas, told those at the meeting that the decision would not be rescinded.

“This is an obligation we must do,” Thomas said. “We cannot shrink from that duty.”

Other diplomats said they were troubled that they might be sent to Iraq without proper training or might suffer injuries for which the State Department might not be able to provide medical care.

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 Iraqi provinces. Those notified have 10 days to accept or reject the offer. 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.

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.