IMAGE: U.S. Embassy in Iraq
Str  /  AFP-Getty Images
Apartments being built in the new U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad are seen on Oct. 11. State Department employees posted to the embassy live within what's known as the fortified Green Zone, but many are protesting a policy that forces postings to Iraq.
updated 10/31/2007 2:07:33 PM ET 2007-10-31T18:07:33

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 hour-long "town hall meeting" called to explain the step, these workers peppered the official who signed 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 so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams in outlying provinces.

Many expressed serious concern about the ethics of sending diplomats against their will to serve in a war zone, where the embassy staff is largely confined to the so-called "Green Zone," and the safety outside the area is uncertain while a review of the department's use of private security contractors to protect its staff is under way.

"Incoming is coming in every day, rockets are hitting the Green Zone," said Jack Crotty, a senior foreign service officer who once worked as a political adviser with NATO forces.

Employees directly confronted Foreign Service Director General Harry Thomas, who approved the move to so-called "directed assignments" late last Friday to make up for a lack of volunteers to go to Iraq.

'Who will raise our children'
"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," Crotty 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?"

"You know that at any other (country) in the world, the embassy would be closed at this point," Crotty said to loud and sustained applause from the about 300 diplomats who attended the meeting in a large State Department auditorium.

Thomas responded by saying the comments were "filled with inaccuracies" but did not elaborate until challenged by the head of the diplomats' union, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), who like Crotty and others, demanded to know why many learned of the decision from news reports.

Thomas took full responsibility for the late notification but objected when AFSA President John Naland said that a recent survey found that 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, prompting a testy exchange.

"Sometimes if it's 88 to 12, maybe the 88 percent are correct," Naland said.

"88 percent of the country believed in slavery at one time, was that correct?" shot back Thomas, who is black, in a remark that drew boos from the crowd. "Don't you or anybody else stand there and tell me I don't care about my colleagues. I am insulted," he added.

Rice was not present for the meeting, but her top adviser on Iraq, David Satterfield, did attend.

Medical concerns cited
Other diplomats did not object to the idea of directed assignments but questioned why the State Department had been slow to respond to the medical needs of those who had served in dangerous posts.

"I would just urge you, now that now we are looking at compulsory service in a war zone, that we have a moral imperative as an agency to take care of people who ... come back with war wounds," said Rachel Schnelling, a diplomat who served in Basra, Iraq and said the department had been unresponsive to requests for mental heath care.

"I asked for treatment and I didn't get any of it," she said in comments that were greeted with a standing ovation.

Thomas, who has been in his current job for just a few months, said the department was working on improving its response to stress-related disorders that "we did not anticipate."

Under the new order, 200 to 300 diplomats have been identified as "prime candidates" to fill 48 vacancies that will open next year at the Baghdad embassy and in the provinces. Those notified that they have been selected for a one-year posting will have 10 days to accept or reject the position. If not enough say yes, some will be ordered to go.

Only those with compelling reasons, such as a medical condition or extreme personal hardship, will be exempt from disciplinary action. Diplomats who are forced into service in Iraq will receive the same extra hardship pay, vacation time and choice of future assignments as those who have volunteered.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Uproar at State

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