WASHINGTON (CNN) -- State Department officials should serve where they are needed -- even in war-torn Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says that "people need to serve where they are needed."
Rice was responding to foreign service officers' objections to the possibility of "directed assignments" in Iraq. The issue has caused an uproar in the State Department, resulting in a contentious town hall-style meeting Wednesday.
The new directives would be needed if enough qualified foreign service officers don't step forward to fill open positions at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
If the State Department enforces directed assignments, it will be the first time since the Vietnam War era.
One official called the order to serve in Iraq "a potential death sentence" during the town meeting.
The State Department already has begun notifying about 200 people considered prime candidates. Those chosen will be given 10 days to respond, according to last week's announcement. Unless they have a valid medical reason to refuse, those who decline could face dismissal, it said.
Wednesday's heated meeting was replayed on an internal State Department television channel in Washington several times and talked about widely.
Some at the hourlong meeting questioned why they were not told of the policy change directly, learning about it instead from news organizations last week. Watch the diplomats exchange angry words »
"I just have no respect for the whole process because you've demonstrated a lack of respect for your own colleagues," said foreign service officer Jack Croddy.
"Thank you for that comment. It's full of inaccuracies, but that's OK," Harry Thomas Jr., director general of the foreign service, shot back.
Others pointed out the risks of such assignments, considering the dangers of a war zone, lack of security and regular rocket attacks on U.S. personnel.
Rice, who did not attend the meeting, tried to calm things down Friday by underscoring the State Department's attempts to do "everything that we can to try and protect our diplomats."
However, she said, "This is one of the highest priority tasks of the United States, and we're going to meet our obligations."
Speaking to reporters en route to Turkey and the Mideast, she said, "I don't know if we will have direct assignments or not, but we are one foreign service, and people need to serve where they are needed."
The secretary sent out a cable to State Department employees worldwide encouraging them to serve in Iraq.
"This year [U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker] has identified the need for additional positions to more effectively accomplish our mission in Iraq," Rice said in the cable.
Rice said she has decided to go forward with the identification of officers to serve, "should it prove necessary to direct assignments."
"Should others step forward, as some already have, we will fill these new jobs as we have before -- with volunteers. However, regardless of how the jobs may be filled, they must be filled," she said.
Rice earlier said reports that the State Department was finding it hard to coax foreign service employees into Iraq "couldn't be further from the truth."
The assignments are new positions. Fifteen people have stepped forward to volunteer for Iraq service since the new policy was announced October 26, department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
McCormack rejected comments by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, that State Department employees are "nervous Nellies" and that wounded U.S. military veterans should be asked to fill the Iraq vacancies.
McCormack said until now the State Department has been successful in filling jobs in Iraq with volunteers. Since 2003, more than 1,500 personnel have volunteered to go to Iraq, he said. But with the expansion of the staff in Iraq this year, 58 spots were left open.
"They are serving in dangerous and challenging places," he said. "We have a lot of brave people who are stepping up to the plate in Anbar and Basra and Baghdad and Kabul and a lot of other places that are not necessarily in the headlines."
State Department employees have been killed in Iraq, but McCormack could not say how many. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Zain Verjee and Charley Keyes contributed to this report.