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The World | BOMBING IN IRAQ

A Life Devoted to the Victims, the Hungry and the Silenced

August 20, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Sergio Vieira de Mello, a veteran U.N. diplomat who tapped an easy charm and gentle mediating manner to steer strife-torn regions from Kosovo to East Timor away from bloodletting, died Tuesday in a terrorist bombing that also ravaged his final mission: the quest for a stable, peaceful and united Iraq. He was 55.

A suave Brazilian gone silver-haired amid the past decade's conflicts, he was the concerned visage of a faceless institution, the sleeves-up, hands-on human rights commissioner in a world body often criticized for aloofness, bureaucracy and multilateral muddle.

As colleagues the world over mourned the loss of a man whose 34-year career read like a travelogue through the past generation's most brutal landscapes, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the slain envoy as an "outstanding servant of humanity."

"The loss of Sergio Vieira de Mello is a bitter blow for the United Nations and for me personally," Annan said in a statement. "I can think of no one we could less afford to spare."

The killing of Vieira de Mello, the secretary-general's special representative and the U.N.'s top diplomat here, leaves a hole in the effort to help Iraqis rebuild and reconcile. His calm, evenhanded interventions in volatile hotspots won respect for the United Nations and built a legacy that colleagues insist proves he did not die in vain.

Vieira de Mello "was the U.N., in a way," said Salim Lone, his spokesman here. "Wherever there was suffering, he was there."

He was also often there for the healing. His shepherding of East Timor from bloody ethnic chaos to joyous independence last year drew praise and admiration from a wide spectrum of political, ethnic and religious leaders.

East Timor President Jose Alexandre Gusmao said his country was shocked by the death of the man he called a "courageous friend and great leader."

"Sergio Vieira de Mello endeared himself to the people of East Timor with his common touch, sensitivity, sense of humor and charisma," Gusmao said. "As a leader he fought tirelessly for democracy, human rights and sustainable justice."

Vieira de Mello's criticism of U.S. detention of Sept. 11 terrorism suspects without trial established him in the eyes of many Muslims as a reliable advocate of fairness and justice. With his death, international forces working on Iraq's troubled reconstruction may be deprived of a respected partner and savvy mediator.

In his last interview, Vieira de Mello commiserated with Iraqis upset by the occupation of their country. "It is traumatic. It must be one of the most humiliating periods in their history," he told the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper in his homeland in an article published Monday. "Who would like to see their country occupied? I wouldn't like it if there were tanks driving down Copacabana."

Gamal Ibrahim, until recently the head of Vieira de Mello's protective detail here, had worked for the diplomat in East Timor as well. Always committed to the mission, Vieira de Mello had talked Ibrahim out of leaving his post in Dili by breaking out a bottle of rare whiskey.

When Ibrahim asked for two months off from his recent duties to rejoin his wife and baby son in the United States, the diplomat hinted at his own mixed feelings in sending him off to see his family.

"He told me: 'If it were me, I would want to go too. So you go. I have to finish up here,' " Ibrahim recalled, shaken by the sudden need to use the past tense in speaking of his colleague.

He said Vieira de Mello respected the need for security but hated its constraints and the way the long protective motorcades made him appear like a viceroy. "He never thought that death would be that close to him."

Ibrahim's recollection of his boss' conflicted emotions -- he said the envoy took the Iraq job out of loyalty to Annan -- reflected the diplomat's awareness that unlike previous missions, the U.N. would be playing a supporting relief role rather than directing reconstruction and reconciliation efforts within the country.

State Department officials had privately expressed the hope that Vieira de Mello's track record would allow Washington to mend fences with allies who opposed the war as well as put a cloak of international legitimacy on the occupation.

In a statement, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Tuesday: "My colleagues at the Department of State and I share the grief and sadness of the United Nations family, and of all those in the international community whose lives were enriched by Sergio Vieira de Mello.

"Sergio never shirked the most difficult assignments, including when U.N. Secretary-General Annan asked him to go to Iraq and take up this unprecedented mission as the secretary-general's special representative. Those who worked closely with him over the long, hot weeks of this summer were struck by his sensible, pragmatic approach. Where others saw obstacles or despair, he created options and solutions.

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