US State Department enforces postings to Iraq

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WASHINGTON, Oct 27 (Reuters) Facing staff shortages in Iraq, the US State Department announced that diplomats would have no choice but to accept one-year postings in the hostile environment or face losing their jobs.

In what is likely to be an unpopular move with staff, State Department human resources director Harry Thomas said about 250 ''prime candidates'' for vacant Iraqi posts would be notified on onday of the decision.

He said yesterday they would have 10 working days to respond to the demand that they go to Iraq in summer, 2008, and only those with valid reasons such as a medical problem, would be exempt.

Until now postings to Iraq have been on a voluntary basis and often hard to fill.

''We have all taken an oath to serve our country and so if someone decides they do not want to go, then we would then consider appropriate actions,'' Thomas said in a conference call with reporters.

''We have many options, including dismissal from the foreign service,'' added Thomas, who returned on Thursday from a visit to Iraq where he assessed staffing needs for next year.

Iraq assignments will be handed out from Nov. 12 until the US Thanksgiving Holiday on November 22 but Thomas said he hoped that enough diplomats would step forward voluntarily.

Privately, many US diplomats say they fear being posted to Iraq because of the risks of working in a war zone. In addition, it is an ''unaccompanied'' posting, meaning children and a spouse cannot accompany the diplomat because of the dangers involved.

Thomas said the State Department had made ''directed'' assignments before, such as in 1969 when an entire junior foreign officer class was sent to Vietnam and again in the 1970s and 1980s for some difficult African postings.

''This is not unique,'' he said. ''Foreign service officers have always volunteered for their country.'' Currently there are about 200 U.S. diplomats in Iraq who serve on a one-year basis and the staffing need would rise to about 250 for next summer, he said.

Thomas said about 1,200 State Department employees have already served in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 and those postings have so far been on a volunteer basis.

He said there was an attractive financial package for those serving in Iraq as well as five recreational breaks during the year-long posting.

He did not believe the move would discourage people from joining the foreign service.

''After Google and Disney, we are the most popular place for people to work,'' Thomas said, referring to a recent survey that ranked the State Department in the top five places to work in America.

REUTERS SZ PM0555

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