WASHINGTON – Several hundred U.S. diplomats vented anger and frustration Wednesday about the State Department’s decision to force foreign service officers to take jobs in Iraq, with some likening it to a “potential death sentence.”
In a contentious hourlong meeting, they peppered officials responsible for the order with often hostile complaints about the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam. Announced last week, it will require some diplomats – under threat of dismissal – to serve at the embassy in Baghdad and in reconstruction teams in outlying provinces.
Many expressed serious concern about the ethics of sending diplomats against their will to work in a war zone – where the embassy staff is largely confined to the protected “Green Zone” – as the department reviews use of private security guards.
“Incoming is coming in every day, rockets are hitting the Green Zone,” said Jack Croddy, a senior foreign service officer.
He and others confronted Foreign Service Director General Harry Thomas, who approved the move to “directed assignments” late Friday to make up for a lack of volunteers willing to go to Iraq.
“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,” Croddy said. “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?”
No U.S. diplomats have been killed in Iraq, although the security situation is precarious, and completion of a new fortified embassy compound and living quarters has been beset by logistical and construction problems.
Still, Croddy’s remarks were met with loud and sustained applause from the approximately 300 diplomats at the meeting.
Thomas responded by saying the comments were “filled with inaccuracies.” But he did not elaborate until challenged by the head of the diplomats union, the American Foreign Service Association, who demanded to know why many learned of the decision from news reports.
Thomas took full responsibility for the late notification. But he objected when the association’s president, John Naland, said a recent survey found only 12 percent of the union’s membership believed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was “fighting for them.”
“That’s their right but they’re wrong,” Thomas said.
Rice was not present for the meeting. Her top adviser on Iraq, David Satterfield, did attend.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack acknowledged the session was “pretty emotional.” He praised Thomas for holding it and he stressed that all diplomats sign an oath to serve, obligating them to be available to work anywhere.
Other diplomats at the meeting did not object to the idea of directed assignments. But they questioned why the State Department had been slow to respond to the medical needs of those who had served in dangerous posts.