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Rice vouches for diplomats commitment
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    WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday defended the commitment of the nation’s diplomats, despite recent resistance by many foreign services officers to a proposal to require tours in Iraq.
    Last fall, several hundred diplomats convened for an hour-long ‘‘town hall meeting’’ to discuss an order that would have mandated some service at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and outlying provinces. Some questioned the ethics of sending people against their will to a war zone, with one calling the forced assignments a ‘‘potential death sentence’’ to loud applause.
    ‘‘I was deeply offended myself, and deeply sorry that these people who had self-selected into this town hall went out of their way, to my view, cast a very bad light on the foreign service,’’ Rice told a House panel.
    The State Department eventually found enough volunteers for the 48 vacancies, and the call-ups were never enforced. But the agency could face another round of protests as it opens up its ‘‘bidding cycle’’ this spring for jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan that will be vacated in the summer of 2010.
    Fearing a new staffing crisis at hardship posts amid uncertainty about how the next administration will approach Iraq, the department is separating the process of filling jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan from that of other positions.
    Rep. Duncan Hunter, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he thought the protests against a mere four dozen vacancies for the heavily fortified embassy in Baghdad was pathetic considering the lengthy combat tours by service members.
    ‘‘I thought it was a sad commentary when you have tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines laying their lives on the line who are re-enlisting for that combat and you have State Department people standing up and saying they were not going to go to Iraq,’’ said Hunter, R-Calif.
    In response, Rice said the comments made were isolated and prompted a visceral response by the rest of the diplomatic corps, including those serving in dangerous posts outside Iraq and Afghanistan.
    ‘‘I will tell you, the blogs were lit up in the Department of State by people who were offended. . . who were absolutely offended by those comments,’’ she said.
    Rice said not only did she find enough volunteers to fill the posts, but four diplomats gave up ambassadorships elsewhere to serve at the Baghdad embassy under Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
    The State Department has changed dramatically its approach to deploying diplomats since the Sept. 11 attacks, including shifting foreign service officers from Europe to places like Pakistan and Afghanistan and increasing the number of political officers serving alongside military commands.
    In its 2009 budget proposal, the administration has requested 1,100 new foreign service officers and 300 new USAID officers. Also requested is some $249 million to develop a corps of diplomats, other federal employees and private-sector volunteers willing to deploy to places like Iraq and Afghanistan to aid reconstruction.
    Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would like to see increased deployments of federal personnel outside the State and Defense departments. Recently, about a dozen Treasury Department officials were sent to Baghdad to help the ministries better execute their budgets — an invaluable asset in the reconstruction effort, Gates said. But more could be done faster if the government was better prepared.
    ‘‘I would give, frankly, the departments probably an A for will, but we’d have to talk about their repeating the semester when it comes to performance,’’ he said.
    On another matter, Gates and Rice said the government in recent months has been able to increase substantially its oversight of private security contractors. In December, following a shooting involving Blackwater Worldwide employees, the departments of State and Defense reached an agreement that gave the military in Iraq more control over such contractors.
    Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, recently submitted a favorable report on the subject, Gates said.
    ‘‘I would say that while State is still doing their own contracting in an operational sense, the lack of visibility that was part of the problem before the Blackwater incident, as far as Gen. Petraeus is concerned, that problem has been solved and he’s quite satisfied with the arrangement that exists today,’’ Gates said.
    Rice said she agreed.
    ‘‘I do think we’ve come to a good modus vivendi for working through the problems. And to my knowledge, at this point, it is a system that is much better,’’ she said.