Career foreign service officers at the US State Department reacted angrily at a town hall meeting on Wednesday to the possibility that they might be forced to go to Iraq, putting senior Bush administration officials on the defensive.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced just a few days earlier that the State Department would require some diplomats to serve at the US embassy in Baghdad or on reconstruction teams in some of the country's volatile provinces. Only those who can cite compelling reasons, like medical problems or extreme personal hardship, will be exempt from disciplinary action, including dismissal, if they refuse to go.
"It was an hourlong event and for a brief period one or two speakers expressed very strongly held views," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "It's a pretty sensitive topic and, understandably, some people are going to have some pretty strong feelings about it."
One foreign service officer likened the Iraq order to a "potential death sentence." "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," said the officer, who identified himself as Jack Croddy. "I'm sorry, but basically that's a potential death sentence, and you know it."
The comments were directed at Harry Thomas, the Foreign Service director general. Rice did not attend the meeting, but her Iraq deputy, David Satterfield, was there.
"I certainly understand very much that this is extremely difficult for people who have not contemplated this kind of service," Satterfield said in an interview. But "this is an expeditionary world. For better or worse, it requires an expeditionary service."
Many federal employees have refused repeated requests that they go to Iraq, while others have demanded that they be assigned only to Baghdad and not be sent outside its fortified Green Zone, which includes the US embassy and Iraqi government ministries.