State Dept. May Order Diplomats to Iraq

The State Department has warned diplomats that if not enough qualified candidates step forward for open positions in Iraq next year, "prime candidates" with needed skills may again be ordered to serve there.

ABC News has obtained a copy of an unclassified internal cable sent out to all diplomats on April 8, first reported today by the Associated Press.

The cable notes there are "significant shortages of foreign service officers" for the number of available positions, and says that jobs will again be filled on a priority basis, starting with those in Iraq and, for the first time, Afghanistan, as well.

The timeline for filling those positions has been moved up in an attempt to streamline the assignment process and avoid the contentious "directed assignments" that outraged some diplomats last year because they would have been forced to serve in a war zone.

"We staffed Iraq and Afghanistan entirely with volunteers in 2008 and we hope to accomplish the same in 2009," the department's top human resources official, Director General Harry Thomas, says in the cable.

"The 2008 season, however, has been difficult. While the prime candidate exercise will be repeated, we intend for it to be better executed. The logic and authority behind the prime candidate exercise remain: we must assign to Iraq those employees whose skills are most needed, and ... [they] should know that they personally are needed.

"We begin with the premise that Iraq and Afghanistan remain our top foreign policy priorities and must, therefore, be fully staffed with qualified employees," the cable states, but notes that "a willing, qualified volunteer is always preferable to an employee sent involuntarily."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked today about directed assignments to Iraq, during a hearing on Capitol Hill. She praised her foreign service officers for eventually filling all slots in Iraq voluntarily, but said she was "deeply offended" by some diplomats who protested the move during a town hall meeting at the State Department last fall.

At that session, one person called forced service in Iraq "a potential death sentence."