United States prepares to assign diplomats to Iraq


By Matthew Lee, AP

WASHINGTON — In the largest call-up of U.S. diplomats since the Vietnam War, the State Department is planning to order some of its personnel to serve at the American Embassy in Iraq because of a lack of volunteers.

Those designated “prime candidates” — from 200 to 300 diplomats — will be notified Monday that they have been selected for one-year postings to fill the 40 to 50 vacancies expected next year.

They will have 10 days to accept or reject the position. If not enough say yes, some will be ordered to go to Iraq and face dismissal if they refuse, Harry Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service, said Friday.

“Starting Nov. 12, our assignments panel will assign people to Iraq,” Thomas told reporters in a conference call. “Under our system, we have all taken an oath to serve our country, we have all signed (up for) worldwide availability.

“If someone decides … they do not want to go, we will then consider appropriate action,” he said. “We have many options, including dismissal from the Foreign Service.”

Only those with compelling reasons, such as a medical condition or extreme personal hardship, will be exempt from disciplinary action, Thomas said. He said the process of deciding who will go to Iraq should be complete by the end of November.

Diplomats who are forced into service in Iraq will receive the same extra hardship pay, vacation time and choice of future assignments as those who have volunteered since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this past summer ordered Baghdad positions to be filled before all others around the world.

About 200 Foreign Service officers work in Iraq.

It is certain to be unpopular due to serious security concerns in Iraq and uncertainty over the status of the private contractors who protect U.S. diplomats there, particularly after a deadly Sept. 16 shooting in which guards from Blackwater USA protecting an embassy convoy were accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians.

The union that represents U.S. diplomats, the American Foreign Service Association, has expressed deep concerns in the past about a possible move what are known as “directed assignments.” But officials with the union could not be reached for comment late Friday.

The move to directed assignments is rare but not unprecedented.