Help wanted: Must be willing to die

White House assurances that Iraq in general and Baghdad in particular have become safer thanks to President Bush’s “surge” strategy are apparently not resonating at certain levels of the U.S. State Department.

The department has been unable to attract enough volunteers from among its diplomatic corps to fully staff the huge Baghdad embassy, the United States’ largest, so it is resorting to its first mandatory call-up of Foreign Service officers since the Vietnam War.

Thus, State has identified 200 to 300 “prime candidates” for the postings, of which 50 will be chosen. If not enough agree to go, they’ll be ordered to go — the department uses the more diplomatic “directed assignment” — and face dismissal if they don’t.

The department was embarrassed when it had to call on the Pentagon to fill slots that State couldn’t, which the military did with what The Washington Post called “barely concealed resentment.”

Earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to speed up the process of staffing the embassy by decreeing that the Baghdad posts had to be filled before any other presumably more desirable positions would be filled in Washington and around the world. Other civilian agencies like the departments of Commerce and Agriculture have similarly had problems in cajoling their employees to volunteer.

The assignments are for one year, with 60 days R&R outside Iraq, with additional pay of 70 percent of salary plus another 20 percent to make up for the long hours. With those kinds of inducements you have to reckon that Iraq is a pretty bleak assignment if State can’t find people to accept it.

You would also think Iraq is a ticket that any ambitious young diplomat would want punched, but since more than 1,200 of the 11,500-member Foreign Service have served there, maybe word has gotten around.