Friday, August 3, 2007

The State Department is offering some diplomats coveted postings in places like London, Paris and Prague if they first agree to serve a year in Iraq.

The initiative represents the latest attempt to fill vacant positions in Iraq, which has become increasingly unpopular with career Foreign Service officers.

George Staples, director-general of the Foreign Service, announced the policy in a cable message late last week. The policy applies only to midlevel officers because their numbers are most scarce.

“The idea behind linked assignments is that a volunteer for Iraq service will be able to be paneled to an onward assignment at the same time he or she is paneled to Baghdad,” according to the message, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

In coming weeks, officers will be able to bid on Baghdad positions becoming available next summer.

Because they are required to spend at least a year in Iraq to be eligible for the new benefit, they will begin their “linked” assignments in the summer of 2009 at the earliest, depending on their need for language training.

Officers serving in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq, most of which are outside Baghdad, do not qualify, Mr. Staples said in a message dated July 26, his last day on the job.

He noted that those officers would still get one of their top five choices for an onward assignment.

The State Department has been offering incentives to Iraq volunteers since the embassy there opened in 2004, including better pay, more vacation time and better chances for promotion.

But because of the difficult conditions there and because most positions last only a year, the department has been hard-pressed to fill all slots on time.

It even changed its entire bidding and assignment system last year, not opening positions elsewhere in the world until most openings in Iraq are filled.

A State Department official said the difficulties of staffing Iraq posts have been exaggerated in the press.

Asked why the agency resorted to yet another incentive, the official said, “People work really hard and deserve incentives.”

Mr. Staples said the new program cannot be expanded to the entire service at this time because it “would be too difficult, if not mathematically impossible, to fairly implement, given the number of positions and 12-month tour of duty in Iraq.”

There are 22 Baghdad positions eligible for the new policy beginning next year.

Most are for political officers, but there are also public diplomacy, management and economic slots.

The list of “linked” assignments includes 59 positions around the world, most of them in Europe. Some of the traditionally most sought-after posts on it are London, Paris, Prague, Tokyo, Singapore, Buenos Aires and Sydney, Australia.

Baghdad volunteers will be able to bid on those posts much earlier than the rest of the Foreign Service.

“Except in rare circumstances, if an employee does not complete the [Iraq] tour, the onward assignment will be broken, and the employee will have to bid again,” said Mr. Staples, who retired last week after 26 years in the Foreign Service.

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