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Veteran US Diplomat Richard Holbrooke Dies

Richard Holbrooke.
By Dan De Luce
Washington DC (AFP) Dec 14, 2010
Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a key figure in the 1995 peace agreement that ended three years of war in Bosnia, died Monday from a heart ailment, media reported.

Holbrooke, 69, died after undergoing surgery for a torn aorta at a Washington hospital. He fell ill on Friday while working at the State Department on the building's seventh floor where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has her office.

His death comes at a critical time for US policy, with the US administration due to conduct a review of its troop surge in Afghanistan and campaign against the Taliban on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

A hard-nosed trouble shooter, Holbrooke is perhaps best known for brokering the 1995 peace agreement that ended three years of war in Bosnia.

As a special US envoy in the current Afghan conflict, he has had the daunting task of pushing Kabul and Islamabad to work together against resurgent Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama called him "a towering figure in American foreign policy, a critical member of my Afghanistan and Pakistan team, and a tireless public servant who has won the admiration of the American people and people around the world."

Just before Holbrooke's death, Obama had told members of his family at a State Department holiday reception just hours earlier: "America is more secure and the world is a safer place because of the work of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Dubbed "the bulldozer" for his impatient, hard-charging style, Holbrooke alternately browbeat and cajoled the nationalist leaders of former Yugoslavia until he succeeded in forging a peace deal in November 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, following a round of NATO air strikes against Serb forces.

The Dayton agreement, despite criticism, has held the shaky Bosnian state together despite persistent tensions among rival communities.

Born in April 24, 1941 in New York, Holbrooke began his diplomatic career at the age of 21 in Vietnam, and rose quickly to key posts in president Lyndon B. Johnson's administration during the trauma of the Vietnam war.

When the Democrats took back the White House in 1977, president Jimmy Carter appointed him assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs at age 35.

It was not until July 1994, when he was named assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs under president Bill Clinton, that the outspoken Holbrooke emerged as a prominent public figure as he took on the conflict in former Yugoslavia.

After the signing of the peace agreement, Holbrooke recounted the roller-coaster negotiations in a well-received book, "To End a War," in which he argued the case for a robust US foreign policy that includes a readiness for military action to prevent possible genocide.

While considered a heavyweight with a first-class intellect, Holbrooke's intense, blunt personality made him few friends at the State Department.

Holbrooke reportedly clashed at times with Clinton's inner circle, including then secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

Holbrooke has also had a lucrative career in the private sector.

During the 1980s Holbrooke earned more than a million dollars a year at the now defunct Lehman Brothers brokerage house and served at Credit Suisse First Boston as vice chairman of the US unit, even as he continued to serve as consultant to the White House and the State Department.

His links with the Swiss bank raised concerns in Congress, where the Senate first blocked his appointment in 1999 as ambassador to the United Nations. The nomination was stalled for more than a year as Holbrooke faced a federal ethics probe.

He has long been tipped as a possible candidate for the top diplomat's job, and was expected to become secretary of state if Democrat Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000. He was again a front-runner for the job when Democrat John Kerry ran for president in 2004.

Holbrooke served as a foreign policy advisor to Hillary Clinton in her unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the White House.

When Obama was elected and Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, Holbrooke was asked once again to wade into a foreign crisis and perform a miracle amid eroding US public support for America's longest war.

After making headlines when he took the job, Holbrooke was unusually absent from the public arena in 2009 - fueling suspicions that he had been sidestepped - as Afghanistan plunged into a political crisis sparked by fraud in the presidential election, and Pakistan launched a major counter-militant operation.

Holbrooke, who has two sons, married in 1994 his third wife, Kati Marton, a writer and former journalist.

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