WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to cable all U.S. diplomats urging them to serve in Iraq, the State Department said on Thursday, a day after a furor erupted over plans to order some of them there.
At an emotional town hall meeting on Wednesday, U.S. diplomats bitterly complained about the State Department’s decision to identify “prime candidates” who may have to accept compulsory one-year tours in Iraq or risk losing their jobs.
One said it was a “potential death sentence” to serve in Baghdad, where mortar rounds land in the heavily fortified “Green Zone” where the U.S. embassy is located.
“The secretary is going to send out a cable worldwide to people talking about this decision as well as encouraging people to serve in Iraq,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
More than 200 diplomats have been told they are in a pool who may be forced to go to Iraq to fill 48 positions for which no qualified candidates have volunteered.
The State Department sought to tamp down the anger of some diplomats about the possible forced assignments to Iraq as well as the idea that U.S. foreign services officers are shirking by their reluctance to go.
McCormack said more than 1,500 U.S. diplomats — out of a total of about 11,500 — have served in Iraq. He also said that 15 people have volunteered to go to Iraq since Friday’s announcement that there may be forced assignments to fill the 48 slots.
Those 15 are now being vetted, he said, adding that if more volunteer there may not be any forced assignments to Iraq, where violence rages more than four years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and critic of the war launched by Republican U.S. President George W. Bush, said any reluctance to serve bespoke doubts about the conflict among U.S. diplomats.
“I think it’s an indication of the failure of this Iraq policy,” Pelosi told reporters. “People are patriotic, they take hardship duty all over the world to represent our country and we’re very proud of them when they do.
“And so, when they resist, it’s very unusual and should be a very clear message about the direction of this war, the prospect for success in it and the lack of interest in people in serving our country in that way,” she added.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell