Diplomats Pushed to Serve in Iraq

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a message to State Department employees on Friday reminding them that their duty to serve may include being stationed in Iraq. The notice followed a testy meeting, during which staffers raised concerns about a forced assignment in a war zone.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

And now a closer look at a story that's making headlines.

Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a message to all her employees, reminding them that they have a duty to serve and she just might have to direct people to serve in Iraq. Her not-so subtle reminder followed a testy town hall meeting, where staffers raised lots of questions and concerns about the possibility of forced assignments to a war zone.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is the largest U.S. mission in the world. And there are a growing number of jobs to fill both there and in the provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq.

Secretary Rice told diplomats that she will fill all these jobs. And if not enough volunteers come forward, she'll order people to go. Staffers have lots of technical questions about how all of this will work; and some very emotional ones, like this one from Jack Croddy, who said in the town hall that a forced assignment to Iraq is a potential death sentence.

Mr. JACK CRODDY (Senior Foreign Office Officer, U.S. Department of State): Who will take care of our children? Who will raise out children if we're dead or seriously wounded? How - who will get our kids through life and into college, okay? And you know that in any other embassy in the world, the embassy would be closed at this point with all these incoming racket and everything. So basically…

(Soundbite of applause)

KELEMEN: While this debate made headlines in the U.S., one Foreign Service officer already based in Iraq's Anbar province just happened to be back here in Washington, James Soriano said he was not surprised to hear the concerns raised by his colleagues. He says service in Iraq is not for everyone.

Mr. JAMES SORIANO (Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State): I live in a trailer - bad plumbing, we eat with the troops. In Anbar, we have no telephone service whatsoever. The insurgents destroyed the telephone infrastructure. So my contact with the outside world is basically by e-mail. It's a tough assignment.

KELEMEN: Soriano travels around in Iraq in full body armor and in military convoys. And like all the Iraq assignments, he's separated from his family.

Mr. SORIANO: Being away from family is a strain. I mean, I think of my kids every day, and my family physically lives in Beirut, Lebanon. My wife is Lebanese. My kids are out there. And I see them five or six times a year. I bring them down to Jordan and I visit them there. But being away from family is very, very stressful.

KELEMEN: But he's done Iraq tours twice now - first in southern Iraq during the early years of the war. He's been in Anbar province for more than 14 months and have seen how local sheiks have turned on the insurgents and aligned themselves with the U.S. Soriano says he plans to stay another year to help the U.S. promote better local governance in Anbar.

Mr. SORIANO: There are some things that come along in life that you just have to do. And I got to bring home Anbar province. You know, I was there when the battle was raging. I'm here now when we're entering the post-conflict period. And I'd like to see it return to normalcy before I depart.

KELEMEN: It's hard to make any generalizations, though, about State Department service in Iraq. More than 1,500 people have already served there. Some have returned with post-traumatic stress disorder and say the department isn't doing enough to help on that front. Three State Department employees have been killed in Iraq.

Steve Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, has been getting lots of calls from people being tapped for potential forced assignments.

Mr. STEVE KASHKETT (Vice President, American Foreign Service Association): In some cases, people are concerned for a particular personal reason, family situation that may preclude them from being willing to volunteer for Iraq at this moment in time. Some people are concerned because they have no experience in the Middle East.

KELEMEN: His feeling, though, is that the State Department will get the 48 volunteers it still needs for next year. But he fears this whole debate has given the wrong impression about Foreign Service officers. Kashkett says diplomats are stepping up to the challenge, but the Foreign Service is small. He says, the military has more musicians than the State Department has personnel to staff U.S. embassies around the world.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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