WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department is warning U.S. diplomats they may be forced to serve in Iraq next year and says it will soon start identifying prime candidates for jobs at the Baghdad embassy and outlying provinces, according to a cable obtained by The Associated Press.
A similar call-up notice last year caused an uproar among foreign service officers, some of whom objected to compulsory work in a war zone, although in the end the State Department found enough volunteers to fill the jobs.
Now, the State Department anticipates another staffing crisis.
“We face a growing challenge of supply and demand in the 2009 staffing cycle,” the cable said, noting that more than 20 percent of the nearly 12,000 foreign service officers have already worked in the two major hardship posts — Iraq and Afghanistan — and a growing number have done tours in both countries.
As a result, the unclassified April 8 cable says, “the prime candidate exercise will be repeated” next year, meaning the State Department will begin identifying U.S. diplomats qualified to serve in Iraq and who could be forced to work there if they don’t volunteer.
The cable describes how the department will fill upcoming vacancies at hardship posts like those Iraq and Afghanistan — although it doesn’t plan to force any Afghanistan assignments. Diplomats will “bid,” or apply, for positions in the war zones that will be advertised in May. After that, the department expects to begin identifying prime candidates for about 300 Iraq jobs that come open next summer, Thomas wrote.
Last year, after prime candidates were identified for 48 Iraq jobs that come open this summer, enough qualified volunteers came forward to avoid what would have been the largest diplomatic call-up since the Vietnam War — but not before the uproar over the prospect of forced tours made national headlines.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that she had been personally offended by the critical comments of some diplomats who questioned the ethics of sending people against their will to a war zone. One diplomat, during an October session held at the State Department to explain the policy to employees, called the forced assignments a “potential death sentence” to loud applause.
“I was deeply offended myself, and deeply sorry that these people who had self-selected into this town hall went out of their way, to my view, cast a very bad light on the foreign service,” Rice told a House panel.
Some diplomats have privately expressed unease about volunteering for Iraq duty amid deep uncertainty over how the administration following President Bush will deal with Iraq, and how that might affect security or change Washington’s focus on the country.
While presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has vowed to stay the course, both Democratic hopefuls, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, have made clear they oppose the war and have pledged to reduce the number of American troops there.
Such a move could have an impact on State Department operations and security, some diplomats fear.
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.