Diplomats won't be forced to go to Iraq, for now

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Top State Department officials, struggling to avoid an embarrassing showdown with their own foreign service, backed away Tuesday from threats to fire diplomats who refuse to accept postings in Iraq.

Trying to calm a furor that has spilled into public view, senior officials extended a deadline and said they won't issue any forced assignments until at least the end of the week. They said that before then they hope to find volunteers for most or all of the 23 unfilled jobs.

"We certainly will continue to accept volunteers . . . to step forward to fill those jobs," said Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, noting that 12 volunteers have appeared in the last few days. He added, however, that there remained a chance that "a very small number" could be ordered to take jobs in strife-torn Iraq.

U.S. officials have worked hard to fill jobs at the huge Baghdad embassy and its satellite offices. The problem grew to a crisis stage last month when it became clear that there were no volunteers for 48 slots for the 250-job rotation cycle that begins next summer.

The State Department has not resorted to using "directed" -- forced -- assignments since the Vietnam War, and officials have confidently predicted since 2003 that they would continue to be able to avoid them.

But the looming shortfall forced senior officials to warn that this time was different, provoking an outcry from many diplomats. At a staff meeting at the State Department on Oct. 31, one employee complained that a forced tour in Iraq was a "death sentence."

Unwillingness of the diplomats to serve in Baghdad has been an embarrassment to the administration, coming at a time when the White House contends that violence in Iraq is declining.

It also plays into accusations from Pentagon officials that their pinstriped counterparts have not been willing to accept enough heavy lifting in the 5-year-old war.

The dispute also has stirred acrimony within the foreign service itself.

Last week, a foreign service officer based in Anbar province posted a letter on the State Department's diplomatic website, "Dipnote," as a reminder to his "overwrought" colleagues: "All of us volunteered for this kind of work and we have enjoyed a pretty sweet lifestyle most of our careers."

The officer, John Matel, wrote that he told Marine friends that foreign service officers "are not wimps and weenies."

"I will not share this article with them, and I hope they do not see it," he wrote. "How could I explain this wailing and gnashing of teeth?"

But Matel's comments didn't persuade all of his colleagues who read them. His posting generated 55 pages of comments. Among them, foreign service officers pointed out that the State Department usually shutters embassies in environments as violent as Iraq's.

"I think very few diplomats ever thought they could be forced into such an environment," wrote "Fred in Thailand."

"This is a draft, nothing more and nothing less," he wrote.

The department's leaders have been unimpressed by such arguments. Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told reporters last week that diplomats who put their own safety over their duties were "in the wrong line of business."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that "people need to serve where they are needed." She made the point in a diplomatic cable sent out Nov. 2.

Of 11,500 U.S. foreign service officers, about 1,500 have so far served in Iraq, which has the largest American embassy in the city's fortified Green Zone. Since the war began, three foreign service officers have been killed in Iraq.

paul.richter@latimes.com

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