Thursday, December 14, 2006

Nearly two-thirds of the 276 Foreign Service members who volunteered to serve in Iraq next year were found unqualified for the jobs, aggravating a shortage that has left the State Department scrambling to fully staff its embassy and other operations in the country.

The department is now offering improved benefits and career-enhancing inducements in a bid to fill 49 vacancies in Iraq. All assignments to other foreign missions have been put on hold until openings in Iraq, Afghanistan and other high-priority posts are filled.

“Stability in Iraq is our nation’s highest priority. We have an ongoing need for the talents of our very best officers and staff,” the State Department leadership said in a cable to all U.S. embassies and consulates around the world last week titled, “2007 Open Call for Bidders on Iraq.”

An accompanying Dec. 6 cable said the incentives package for those serving in Iraq “has been reviewed and revised … to incorporate recently approved benefits and to reflect recently passed legislation.”

The changes include preferred consideration for future assignments, more generous home leave and “enhanced promotion consideration” for those who have served in Iraq.

The cable said 276 Foreign Service members applied for 160 positions in Iraq beginning next summer, but only 82 were approved. Another 15 positions will go to entry-level employees, and 14 of those now in Iraq have decided to extend their tours.

Some diplomats were perplexed by the department’s decision to reject so many of its own, while so-called career-development officers are now scrambling to find “clients” to volunteer for the jobs.

Others said many of those who applied never heard back from human resources. “Too many people have told me that they have bid on Iraq in good faith and followed up as appropriate, and simply gotten the cold shoulder,” a mid-level Foreign Service officer said.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report earlier this year found that the staff shortages were leaving the department unable to fully carry out its stabilization and reconstruction tasks in those countries.

A State Department official said in September that the department will resort to “directed assignments” if necessary to find personnel for hardship posts, principally in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Officials from the State Department’s bureaus of Near East affairs (NEA) and human resources said that, while they appreciate all bids on Iraq, some applicants “did not have the skills required for those positions or relevant previous experience.”

“We had many volunteers, and we don’t always go back to say ‘no,’ ” one official said. “Bidders who simply put Iraq on their bid list but do not contact anyone in Iraq or NEA are not considered serious bidders, unless their background makes them stand out.”

Some volunteers had “partial skills” and were approved pending additional training, the official said. Another official said that some previous experience in the Middle East or in postwar reconstruction is essential for service in Iraq.

Language and cultural training also are considered assets, though only about 30 officers currently posted there speak Arabic.

But even that is no guarantee of success. One Arabic-speaking junior officer with experience in the Middle East said he volunteered to go to Iraq when he first joined the Foreign Service last year, but he was rejected.

He recently bid again but was told that he first had to do a consular tour, which is mandatory for all officers before they get tenured. Now he is considering leaving the service.

Recruitment for Iraq has become such a sensitive subject at the State Department that none of those interviewed agreed to speak on the record.

Iraq and Afghanistan present the Foreign Service with severe challenges. But while reconstruction work in Iraq’s provinces is the most dangerous in the service, some officers said the department should not be too picky when assigning staff to the embassy in Baghdad.

Several officers pointed out that there are still many diplomats who have no interest in serving in Iraq. A former ambassador said some of his ex-colleagues are considering early retirement because they do not want to be forced to serve in Iraq at the end of their careers.

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