American diplomats unwilling to go to Iraq may be forced, says State Department

Friday, November 2, 2007

Almost 50 positions at the American embassy in Iraq remain unfilled with no volunteers, and the State Department has recently told diplomats that if they go unfilled then they will begin forced assignments. "We must go forward with the identification of officers to serve should it prove necessary to direct assignments," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday. "Should others step forward, as some already have, we will fill these new jobs as we have before —with volunteers. However, regardless of how the jobs may be filled, they must be filled."

Since the 48 vacant Iraq posts were announced last Friday, only 15 diplomats have volunteered to work there. Diplomatic assignments are almost always filled by volunteers.

At a State Department "town hall" meeting, Jack Crotty, a 36-year State Department veteran, pointed out the main issue: It's a "potential death sentence".

"It's one thing if someone believes in what's going on over there and volunteers," said Crotty, "but it's another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment."

But U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's response to such fears was unequivocal: "It's for us to go and serve, not to debate the policy, not to agree with it."

Mark Bellamy, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also questioned the entire diplomatic mission. "How do you do diplomacy and development work in an environment as violent as this?" asked Bellamy. The Green Zone can be a demoralizing place for a diplomat to work. Aside from the physical risk, the violence that surrounds daily life in Baghdad creates an isolated atmosphere and a sense of futility. The idea of traveling outside the fortified zone is outlandish and only under heavy guard (the Blackwater guards accused by the Iraqi government of attacking Iraqi civilians were guarding diplomats).

The only association the diplomats have with civilian Iraqis is with those who work at the embassy. Even those Iraq nationals fear for their lives as they are targeted as "collaborators."