- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2007

(AP) — Several hundred U.S. diplomats vented anger and frustration yesterday 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 hourlong “town-hall meeting” called to explain the step, they 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 a war zone, where the embassy staff is largely confined to the Green Zone, and the safety outside the area is uncertain while a review of the department’s use of private security contractors is under way.

“Incoming is coming in every day, rockets are hitting the Green Zone,” senior foreign-service officer Jack Crotty said.

Employees confronted Foreign Service Director General Harry Thomas, who approved the move to “directed assignments” on Friday to make up for a lack of volunteers to go to Iraq.

“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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Crotty said to loud and sustained applause from about 300 diplomats who attended the meeting in a large State Department auditorium.

Mr. 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 Mr. Crotty and others, demanded to know why many learned of the decision from news reports.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Thomas said, prompting a testy exchange.

“Sometimes if it’s 88 to 12, maybe the 88 percent are correct,” Mr. Naland said.

“Eighty-eight percent of the country believed in slavery at one time, was that correct?” shot back Mr. 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.

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