Diplomats On The Front Lines

U.S. Army tank secures the area after eight rockets struck the Al Rasheed Hotel (background) early Sunday, Oct 26, 2003, where U.S. military and civilian employees stay. A spokesman for the military command said there were an "unknown number of casualties" and a quick reaction force had been dispatched to the scene. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson, a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, now covers the State Department. He welcomes feedback.

Much has been written about the security aspects of the work of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, as well as the reconstruction efforts being made by the CPA and its head, former Ambassador Jerry Bremer.

Less well known is the work of a smaller number of State Department employees working with the CPA in Baghdad and in various other cities in Iraq. Currently, of the approximately 3,000 people assigned to the CPA, there are 53 foreign and civil service officers from the State Department, according to officials in Washington. Most work in Baghdad but some are assigned to cities and towns outside the capital, including locations near Iraq's borders with Syria and Iran. As with other Americans who work in Iraq, these diplomats are subject to attacks by pro-Saddam sympathizers and terrorist elements that continue to lash out against the American presence in Iraq.

The highest-ranking diplomat now in Iraq is Ron Schlicher, an Arabic-speaking member of the senior Foreign Service who was previously posted as Consul General in Jerusalem. Schlicher serves as Bremer's primary political adviser. Before Schlicher arrived a few weeks ago, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who formerly headed embassies in Kuwait and Syria, was posted to assist Bremer.

Other diplomats currently on duty, all of who speak Arabic well enough to attend meetings with Iraqis and conduct their business without translators, work with members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and in various government ministries. Thus, they are available as advisers to Iraqis who are going to be drafting a constitution and writing new laws that the Bush administration hopes will form the legal basis for a new, democratic Iraq.

The State Department has combed its personnel files and compiled a list of 402 Arabic speakers. A shorter list of 225 foreign and civil service officers are on a list of volunteers who might be sent to Iraq on temporary assignment. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We look for people who want to go, and we make it possible for them to go, as soon as Baghdad needs them."

However, the CPA in Baghdad cannot always handle even those who are prepared to go. Officials say one thing holding up sending more people at present is security and housing limitations. As demonstrated by recent attacks against U.S. personnel, providing security for Americans assigned to work in Iraq is a major concern. In last weekend's bombing of the al-Rasheed hotel when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was staying there, a State Department official was seriously wounded. That person is now in stable condition.

The attacks on the al-Rasheed and other locations highlight the need for anyone going to Iraq for even a temporary assignment to have secure transportation and housing as well as communications equipment.

Bremer has told officials here he could use another 55 State Department officers now, but their departure is being held up because of the recent attacks, which have heightened the security level being maintained and caused officials in Washington to take a further look at the situation before sending more people to Iraq.

Meanwhile, senior administration officials and agency heads continue to look for "volunteers." Andrew Natsios, head of USAID, said in a recent memo that "there is no more important or rewarding work in the Agency" than Iraq or Afghanistan. Although government employees receive hazardous duty pay to work in these areas, Natsios made it clear he saw such service as a good career move. In his memo, Natsios says, "it is my intention to assure that service in Iraq and Afghanistan is recognized when onward assignment decisions are made, and when individual performance is reviewed by the Selection Boards."

Officials at the State Department say the diplomats sent to Iraq are every bit as much on the front lines as are Americans in military uniform. For many, the posting allows an invaluable opportunity to help Iraqis create a new government from the ground up; for all Americans there, it may very well turn out to be the most challenging assignment of their careers.