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Reconstruction Teams at Premium in Iraq

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Reconstruction Teams at Premium in Iraq

Iraq

Reconstruction Teams at Premium in Iraq

Reconstruction Teams at Premium in Iraq

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One of the cornerstones of President Bush's new Iraq strategy is to have more civilian experts working alongside the military on what are called "provincial reconstruction teams."

But while President Bush said there would be more teams going to Iraq, finding civilian specialists to serve there has not been so easy. And for now, military reservists are being asked to pick up the slack.

A couple of days ago at a Senate hearing, tensions surfaced over a memo from the State Department to the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not hide his anger about the request to fill new civilian jobs in Iraq.

"If you were troubled by the memo, that was mild compared to my reaction when I saw it," he said. "Because out of 129 positions that were being requested, I think 120 or 121 were being requested from the Department of Defense for the provincial reconstruction teams — and for a period of nine months to a year."

For two days in a row — in several congressional hearings — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice found herself explaining that she and Gates have talked about this, and that it's not her fault.

"They are not State Department positions, they are positions that the State Department took the responsibility for, organizing a civilian response," she said. "But they include ... positions like agronomists and engineers and city planners. I don't have those people in the Foreign Service. The State Department positions have been filled."

Rice says the State Department needs some time to find the specialists elsewhere in the U.S. government or to hire contractors willing to go to Iraq.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asserted that this is another sign that President Bush needs to follow up on his promises to develop a civilian response corps. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), co-sponsored a bill last year to develop that organization.

"We need a host of people who are professionals out there in America that we can call upon," Lugar said. "Now, we've all talked about that, but it just hasn't happened. And the need for it to happen swiftly is apparent."

As for the State Department's role in Iraq, Secretary Rice says Foreign Service officers are stepping forward to fill a huge embassy and to lead the provincial reconstruction teams. Rice she says there is a mix of entry-level and mid-career officers there now and she's been surprised she hasn't had to force people to take on these and other dangerous assignments.

"We are at 98 percent filled right now, and we are at 87 percent subscribed for assignments that do not come into being until this summer," Rice told members of Congress. "And so the State Department in Baghdad and Kabul and Islamabad and Riyadh, we are getting our people to those posts."

Many of these are hardship posts, where diplomats go without their families. Rice says she's filling these jobs first, before allowing diplomats to bid on more popular destinations — in Europe for instance. Ambassador Tony Holmes of the American Foreign Service Association says there is some pressure on officers to choose to serve in hot spots.

"They are trying hard to make the package attractive — both in career professional terms and financial terms," he said.

The department appeals to the officers' sense of duty, he said, but there's also "some arm-twisting and forcing people who haven't served in hardship posts in a long time to go to some of these places."

As head of the foreign service officers' union, Holmes faces a lot of questions about what unarmed diplomats can really do in war zones like Iraq.

"Is it secure enough to do their jobs?" he asks. "Diplomats need to be able to meet Iraqi officials and engage in society without fear for their own lives, or exaggerated fears of endangering the lives of those they're meeting."

There's another big issue Holmes is tracking. He says the State Department's budget is flat and the pool of diplomats limited, all at a time when there are more and more dangerous assignments lasting just one year.

That means that every 12 months, the arm-twisting begins again. Holmes says the State Department is under considerable stress.

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