WASHINGTON — Facing growing difficulties staffing its Iraq operations, the State Department is debating whether to begin ordering reluctant diplomats to serve in the foreign service's most dangerous posting.
A change to the traditional voluntary assignment system could hurt morale and undercut the Iraq mission by suggesting to the world that U.S. diplomats are not fully committed to the effort. Yet in the nearly three years since the invasion, U.S. officials have found it increasingly difficult to find qualified personnel to fill jobs in Iraq.
Some senior officials acknowledged privately that they favor adopting such "directed assignments," which have not been put to wide-scale use since the Vietnam War. The department is not likely to make the change for the 2006 rotation, but could turn to it for 2007, some diplomats said.
"The department has never wanted to coerce people, and they've always found a way to avoid this," said one senior U.S. official, who asked to remain unidentified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "But the question is out there."
He added: "A lot of us feel they should."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who would have to approve such a move, was asked about the issue in October by Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rice said in a written reply that department officials were confident they would be able to round up the volunteers they need for Iraq.
But she added: "Nevertheless, the secretary has the authority and tools in place to direct assignments should critical vacancies not be filled through the normal assignment processes. The department is prepared to do so should it become necessary."
Adding to the pressure, the State Department also must find personnel for a new network of civilian-military reconstruction teams.
When people join the foreign service, they agree in writing to be available for duty anywhere. Yet in practice, the system has been almost entirely voluntary.
Iraq is widely considered the most dangerous posting in memory, far more dangerous than, for example, Saigon during the Vietnam War. Even Baghdad's protected Green Zone frequently has been bombarded by insurgents. Few diplomats leave the fortified area.
U.S. diplomats who go to Iraq are not allowed to bring their families because of the danger. They stay for one year, rather than the three years typical in safe environments. The short rotation puts an added burden on the department, which each October must begin soliciting volunteers to go the following July.
The department has filled all of its assignments for the yearly rotations since the March 2003 invasion. But it has become harder each year. Last year, staffing wasn't complete until nearly the start of the rotation.
"There's a law of diminishing returns," said the senior U.S. official.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has more than 3,000 employees, of whom fewer than 200 hold diplomatic positions.
David Satterfield, the embassy's second-ranking official, has said that the limited volunteer pool has forced the department to rely too heavily on young and less experienced foreign service officers, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report this month that quoted him. Satterfield told the committee staff that if the decision was his, he would begin mandatory assignments.
A committee staff member said the foreign service volunteers have included many young, adventurous employees, as well as older "empty nesters" with only a few years left before retirement. But there have been too few experienced mid-career employees, he said.
The foreign service, with about 11,000 State Department employees, "can provide only so many bodies," the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly.
Top department officials have filled the most senior jobs in Iraq by calling the department's senior Middle East hands and appealing to their patriotism and professionalism. They also make clear to ambitious junior diplomats that a tour in Iraq would be a career boost. But those approaches have not been enough to fully solve the problem.
An upcoming challenge will be to find the skilled staff needed for new "provincial reconstruction teams," joint civilian-military organizations to help Iraqis rebuild the economy and institutions in the hinterlands. These assignments will be especially dangerous, requiring employees to travel far outside the Green Zone.
U.S. agencies have struggled to find qualified people to work on such teams in Afghanistan, where they were first used.
The State Department has resisted mandatory assignments in part because it does not want a confrontation with the American Foreign Service Assn., an employee group that represents diplomats. Though not a union, the group has many senior diplomats among its members and is influential with the department.