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U.N. diplomat a trusted figure

NAQOURA, LEBANON — NAQOURA, Lebanon - When United Nations peacekeepers fan out to shore up a fragile peace in Southern Lebanon, they will look for guidance to a gruff-spoken Turk who says with assurance, "I think I know the country."

Timur Goksel has been the eyes and ears of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon since he arrived as its spokesman in 1979, reaching out to Israelis, to their proxy militiamen in the South Lebanon Army, to Shiite Muslim guerrillas and to the Lebanese government.

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Dubbed a "senior adviser," he's a walking memory bank, and he has played a key role in helping UNIFIL avoid past mistakes as it prepared to fill the vaccum created by Israel's troop withdrawal from South Lebanon. The pullout, virtually completed, launches a new era of U.N. peacekeeping in the border area.

"Timur Goksel is an institution in the life of UNIFIL," says a key Western diplomat, one of a long line of foreign officials and journalists who have come to rely on Goksel for information.

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Goksel, 57, was on the mark in his assessment of Hezbollah's adroit tactics and extensive intelligence network that enabled the small guerrilla force to wear down the staying power of Israeli occupation forces.

He judged correctly that the despite the bravado of its leaders, the South Lebanon Army would collapse as Israeli forces withdrew. And he pooh-poohed fears of a bloodbath against Israel's collaborators who were left behind. So far, this last prediction has also held up.

Fighting dissipates

Goksel says South Lebanon's war is basically over: Once the United Nations announces that Israel has fully withdrawn, Lebanon and Hezbollah will acquiesce, albeit grudgingly, and not risk shattering the area's calm with new cross-border attacks that would provoke fierce Israeli retaliation.

If he's right, the expanded force of UNIFIL peacekeepers can look forward to a relatively benign mission of meeting "the human needs of the area," in Goksel's words - something he's waited 21 years to experience.

Goksel is no stranger to the risks faced by UNIFIL peacekeepers over the past two decades. Trapped between Israelis and Lebanese-based guerrillas, more than 230 have died.

Although a civilian, he frequently got caught in firing zones. A year ago, he and an assistant were driving along the coast between Tyre and Naqoura when a mortar round fired by the Amal militia at an Israeli target narrowly missed their vehicle.

"It happens," he says.

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Goksel also tasted the daily frustration felt by peacekeepers with no peace to keep.

Formed in 1978 to help the Beirut government stabilize South Lebanon once Israel withdrew after its Operation Litani invasion, UNIFIL ended up sharing the territory with Israel's Christian-led proxy army. The U.N. force "looked ridiculous," says Goksel, who arrived the next year.

Israel brushed UNIFIL aside in 1982 as its army surged toward Beirut in a bid to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon and set up a pliant Christian-led government. When it pulled back three years later, the Israeli army settled into a 9-mile-wide occupation zone and a protracted war against a new foe: Shiite guerrillas.

Sidelined, hemmed into only part of the territory it should have controlled, UNIFIL managed as well as it could. Within its own area, it limited the flow of weapons and provided a range of humanitarian services, from clinics to school notebooks, preserving a modicum of normality amid the shelling and bombs.

It also kept close tabs on the fighting, documenting abuses of the rules of war, brokering cease-fires and acting as a neutral communications channel. This is where Goksel came in, gleaning the truth from the exaggerations or denials of each side.

"Reading between the lines - I'm good at that. Being a Turk helps," he says.

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After all, Lebanon Syria and what is now Israel were once part of the Turkish Ottoman empire.

In perpetual motion

Broken spectacles perched on his nose, Goksel answers queries with staccato sentences while tapping furiously on his computer keyboard and fielding calls from his office line and mobile telephone.

The son of an air force officer who served as Turkey's air attache in Washington, Goksel went to D.C. public schools before returning home to study public administration. But his soul has taken root in Lebanon.

"This is a fascinating part of the world. It's a small piece of real estate, but all the Middle East is played out here."

Sent here 11 years after joining the United Nations, he made it his business to acquire "a deep knowledge of all the groups" that in turn earned him their trust, he said.

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"Haddad used to say, 'My brother, you're insulting me again,'" he recalls, referring to Maj. Sa'ad Haddad, the first leader of the Israeli-backed militia.

"If they know that you know the area and you treat them as human beings, you can get a lot done."

Even the fact that he lives in the northern Israeli city of Haifa didn't mar his relations with Lebanese militants, who generally view anyone based in Israel with suspicion. "They all would call me at the house."

With far more latitude than official spokesmen usually get, he was among the first at UNIFIL headquarters to learn about events on the ground. This made "that bloody Turk," as a writer for the London Independent affectionately labeled him, indispensable to journalists.

Ordinarily dispassionate, he couldn't hide his emotions in 1996 when, in the midst of fierce fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, Israeli shells killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians who had sought protection at a Fijian U.N. compound. Israel called the shelling a tragic mistake brought about by map-reading and other errors.

"I believe Israel didn't care," Goksel says now. Fearing that one of their units was under threat, the Israelis chose to "damn the consequences. They knew the risks; they didn't care."

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Mapping strategy

This year, once Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made clear his determination to withdraw from Lebanon in compliance with U.N. resolutions, Goksel joined UNIFIL's commander, Maj. Gen. Seth Kofi Obeng, at U.N. headquarters in New York to map a response.

To avoid being caught with an incomplete pullout as before, he insisted that a complete withdrawal be verified by the United Nations before the peacekeepers were sent throughout the zone.

Not everyone is as sanguine as Goksel about the future. The head of Israeli military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Amos Gilad, says he expects the border to be quiet for the next few months, but warns that the situation might deteriorate later. French officials have talked about giving UNIFIL much greater strength to cope with renewed violence.

"This isn't Sierra Leone," Goksel counters. UNIFIL, he says, already has the weapon that counts most in southern Lebanon: support of the local population. When U.S. forces were here in the early 1980s, not even the battleship New Jersey with its 16-inch guns was able to assure their safety, he says.

He's not a complete optimist. "There are always people in Lebanon hiring themselves to the highest bidder - free-lancers - that's the problem in Lebanon."

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But for now, he relishes the silence and the absence of cross-border firing. The other day, for the first time in memory, he didn't automatically turn on his military radio band when he got into his car. "It's beautiful," he says. "My dream is to go to Tyre, get a Jetski, and ride from there to the border without anyone firing at me."


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