Subject: AP: What U.N. did in East Timor ­ a lessonfor Iraq?

What U.N. did in East Timor ­ a lesson for Iraq?

October 12, 2003 8:18pm Associated Press WorldStream

DILI, East Timor (AP) ­ Both lands were ruined by years of misgovernment and armed conflict. Neither had a functioning administration nor a police force.

But the poorer one, governed by the United Nations with broad international consent, quickly got back on its feet and achieved peace and reconciliation between its rival factions. The other's U.S.-led administration has been slow to restore even basic public services and is now facing burgeoning armed resistance.

As debate intensifies about the capability of the United Nations to assume a greater role in the reconstruction of Iraq, the world body's success in rebuilding a devastated East Timor provides a stark contrast to the precarious U.S. administration in Baghdad.

Take the Dili airport ­ East Timor's main gateway to the outside world, which in 1999 was thoroughly looted and clogged by thousands of refugees fleeing a rampage by withdrawing Indonesian troops.

Within weeks of the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers in 1999, its halls and control tower had been made serviceable and civilian charter flights from Australia began operating.

``We got Dili airport up and running (quickly) despite the destruction and security worries because of pro-Indonesian militias in the hills overlooking the runway,' said Emil Domankusic, a French U.N. expert and head of civil aviation in the world's newest country.

Today, Domankusic ­ who in the 1980s worked in Iraq on a project to expand Baghdad's airport ­ says he is puzzled that Baghdad's international airport remains closed for most civilian traffic six months after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

In contrast to Dili, most travelers to Baghdad still face the daunting 11-hour desert drive from Jordan because the U.S. military ­ which has turned Baghdad's international airport into a vast base ­ believes it is too dangerous to allow in regular commercial flights.

To be sure, the challenges facing Iraq's U.S.-led administrators are especially daunting and Baghdad's airport is particularly vulnerable, with armed militants mounting regular attacks on its approaches.

But the United Nations' success in rescuing East Timor from ruin provides too valuable a lesson to be ignored, President Alexandre Jose ``Xanana' Gusmao said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

U.S. President George W. Bush ­ who is facing mounting domestic discontent because of the human and financial cost of occupying Iraq ­ is now seeking a larger U.N. role in providing peacekeepers and assisting in running that nation.

But continuing disputes over accelerated Iraqi sovereignty and the shape of the future government in Baghdad ­ in addition to frayed trans-Atlantic relations ­ have kept would-be contributors away.

``The U.N. role ... should be that of a mediator, helping the interim (Iraqi) government fulfill the wishes of the Iraqi people,' Xanana said. ``Involvement in decision-making must be quickly assured to the Iraqi people.'

East Timor finally won its independence in May 2002 after four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of often brutal Indonesian occupation. The U.N. mission here has been widely touted as the organization's most successful attempt ever at nation-building.

During the past decade the United Nations engaged in numerous such projects, including in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. But it is the mission in East Timor that is most mentioned as a possible model for Iraq.

``One of the most important reasons for this is that from the very beginning the U.N. made the purpose of its presence absolutely clear to the people, that we wanted to quickly make East Timor self-governing and self-reliant,' said Kamalesh Sharma, the top U.N. official in Dili. Still, U.N. officials warn that it is difficult to draw parallels between an impoverished and devastated country such as East Timor, and Iraq ­ an industrialized nation with huge oil wealth, sophisticated infrastructure and hundreds of thousands of educated and skilled workers.

The situations are different in other ways too. East Timor is a tiny nation of 15,000 square kilometers (6,000 square miles), and a population of about 750,000 people. Iraq is 15 times larger and has 22 million people. While 98 percent of East Timorese are Roman Catholics, Iraq is sharply divided between its Shiite and Sunni Muslim Arabs and the Kurdish minority in the north of the country.

In both nations, however, about one-fifth of the population is estimated to be opposed to foreign intervention, with many in East Timor backing pro-Indonesian militia groups that operated for months in the country's mountainous interior. In Iraq, where U.S.-led coalition forces are facing escalating armed resistance, military experts say that a similar percentage of Iraqis are inimical to the occupation.

The U.N. suffered a major blow in August when one of its top officials, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad. Vieira de Mello served for three years as governor of East Timor and was seen as the main architect of its transformation into a democratic and independent state.

When the United Nations took control of East Timor in December 1999, the territory had been devastated by the retreating Indonesians, who killed nearly 2,000 civilians, displaced half the population, and destroyed most of its infrastructure and buildings.

The U.N. mission moved swiftly to set up a new civil service and judiciary, police force and army, and organized the first democratic elections before handing over control on May 20, 2002.

Crucially for Washington, which is engaged in a hurried attempt to build up a new Iraqi army of 40,000 men from elements of Saddam Hussein's old force, officials here warn that the training of an East Timorese Defense Force was perhaps the most difficult ­ and lengthy ­ plank in their reconstruction effort.

Brig. Gen. Taur Matan Ruak, commander of East Timor's army said it has taken two years to properly train just two infantry battalions ­ the core of the nascent force ­ despite the fact that many of the Timorese recruits were experienced resistance fighters.

Back to October menu

World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu