The State Department is backing down for now from forcing diplomats to serve in Iraq this summer because enough have volunteered to work in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and in outlying provinces, officials say.
Three foreign service officers who signed up for the last of the 48 vacancies have won tentative approval. Once personnel panels give a formal OK, the department will announce it will not need to enforce a plan for the forced assignments, the officials saiy.
That word could come as early as Friday, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced.
But the policy of "directed assignments" could go back into force if the current crop of volunteers does not pan out. "We're reserving the option," department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Officials also said the department may have to resort to such a measure in the future.
"We believe we are close to having all the jobs filled by volunteers. We are down to the low single digits, and that is very positive," McCormack said. "That doesn't mean the policy has changed."
Officials had indicated this week that a forced call-up might not be necessary after volunteers cut the number of vacant posts to 11 by Tuesday. All were filled by Thursday, with only the final screening process for the last three spots pending, they said.
The announcement will be major relief for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the department's senior management. They had struggled to quell a revolt among diplomats who questioned the ethics of ordering unarmed civilians into a war zone under penalty of dismissal.
The officials said Rice had intended to go ahead with that policy if not enough diplomats had volunteered.
The prospect of the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam had caused an uproar among the 11,500-member Foreign Service. At a contentious town hall meeting this month, the strength of their opposition came into public view as some diplomats protested the forced assignments, citing safety and security concerns.
The complaints were a deep embarrassment to the department and led Rice and her deputy, John Negroponte, to remind diplomats of their duty to serve their government anywhere they are needed. Both sent worldwide cables urging foreign service officers to volunteer, but stressed that they would rely directed assignments if needed.
Accusation of cowardice and treason
More than 1,500 diplomats have volunteered to work in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But the resistance to forced assignments generated bitter criticism of the diplomatic corps; some Internet commentators accused the foreign service of cowardice and treason.
Last month, the department told 200 to 300 diplomats that they were "prime candidates" for the 48 vacant positions that will come open in Iraq next summer. They had until Tuesday to accept or to offer a medical or family reason not to go. Those without a compelling reason would have been subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal.
But on Tuesday, citing the rising number of volunteers, the department extended the window for more diplomats to come forward and officials said they would not begin ordering anyone to Iraq until next week, if at all.
At the Oct. 31 town hall meeting, hundreds of diplomats applauded when one likened a forced tour in Iraq to a "potential death sentence." Some at the session questioned the ethics of ordering unarmed civilians into a war zone and expressed concerns about a lack of training and medical care for those who have served.
Others diplomats have reacted angrily to the revolt, noting that foreign service officers take a duty to represent their government worldwide - a point that Rice and Negroponte made in their cables.
The debate, often in nasty exchanges, has surfaced on the State Department's official blog. Last week, the Web log posted a critical message from a career diplomat in Iraq who accused opponents of directed assignments of being spoiled elitists and suggested they are "wimps and weenies."
More than 170 people, including some who identify themselves as foreign service or military officers, had entered the fray on the Dipnote blog as of Thursday, making it one of the most popular posts the two-month old venture has published.
Three foreign service personnel - two diplomatic security agents and one political officer - have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
The union that represents diplomats says the situation in Iraq is precarious and the completion of a new embassy compound and living quarters in Baghdad has been beset by logistical and construction problems.
The use of directed assignments is rare but not unprecedented. In 1969, an entire class of entry-level diplomats was sent to Vietnam. On a smaller scale, diplomats were required to work at various embassies in West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.