WASHINGTON - The State Department is warning its 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 yesterday 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. The State Department eventually 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 about 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 has 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 diplomats qualified to serve in Iraq and who could be forced to work there if they don't volunteer.
The prime candidate list will be composed of diplomats who have special abilities that are needed in Iraq, such as Arabic language skills, deep Mideast knowledge, or training in specific areas of reconstruction.
"We must assign to Iraq those employees whose skills are most needed, and those employees should know that they personally are needed," General Harry Thomas, Foreign Service director, said in the cable sent to all diplomatic missions.
The cable describes how the department will fill upcoming vacancies at hardship posts - 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 in summer 2009, Thomas wrote.
The cable said more details will be announced next month, but identification of prime candidates is the first step in implementing forced assignments. Diplomats would be compelled to work under threat of dismissal unless they have a reason, such as a health condition, that would prevent them from going.
Last year, after prime candidates were identified for 48 Iraq jobs that come open this summer, enough qualified diplomats volunteered, thereby avoiding what would have been the largest diplomatic call-up since the Vietnam War.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday 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, to cast a very bad light on the Foreign Service," Rice told a House panel.
Rice said the comments were isolated and prompted a visceral response by the rest of the diplomatic corps, including those serving in dangerous posts outside Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I will tell you, the blogs were lit up in the Department of State by people who were offended . . . who were absolutely offended by those comments," she said.
The State Department is hoping it can fill all of next year's Iraq vacancies with volunteers as it did in 2008.