WASHINGTON, Sept 12 (Reuters) - As a mid-level U.S. diplomat, Chris Stevens dreamed up the idea of building bridges with Iran by having the United States extend greetings to the country on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. He took the plan to then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who quickly blessed it.
"That was easy," Stevens told Albright, according to a State Department colleague knowledgeable about the conversation in the late 1990s.
"Yeah, not like most stuff in this building," replied Albright, who later turned to him for other ideas on easing tensions between the two nations.
Laconic, creative and charming, Stevens died on Tuesday when Islamist gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador to Libya along with three other Americans.
Current and former colleagues describe Stevens, 52, as a man of decency and intelligence whose easy manner belied a serious mind and a yen for tough assignments.
In some ways, his career pinnacle may have been his assignment last year to Benghazi as the U.S. emissary to the Libyan rebels who brought down dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a job that led to his elevation to ambassador this May.
"He really is a throwback to a bygone era, if you will, of what I would call the intrepid Arabist," said a State Department colleague who, like others, did not wish to be quoted by name about Stevens so soon after his death.
"He was a 'have satellite phone, will travel' kind of guy," the colleague added.
"They just killed the best of the next generation in the inner sanctum of the foreign service," said a retired senior U.S. diplomat who knew Stevens, describing him as a trustworthy and light-hearted man who made friends easily.
The first U.S. ambassador to be killed in an attack since 1979, Stevens was hailed on Wednesday as a skilled and fearless diplomat who had been among the State Department's rising stars and who preferred being in the field.
The California-born veteran diplomat, an Arabic and French speaker, served as deputy mission chief in Tripoli between 2007 and 2009, in the waning years of Gaddafi's mercurial and brutal rule in the oil-rich country.
As the country dissolved into civil war, he was appointed the U.S. envoy to the Transitional National Council, which was coordinating the revolt against Gaddafi. He returned aboard a Greek cargo freighter that docked in Benghazi in April 2011.
In an e-mail sent to family and friends this summer, Stevens said he was hopeful about Libya's future.
"The whole atmosphere has changed for the better," he wrote, according to the International Herald Tribune. "People smile more and are much more open with foreigners. Americans, French, and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let's hope it lasts!"
U.S. President Barack Obama, who vowed to bring the killers to justice, stressed Stevens' deep ties to Libya and his commitment to helping Libyans build a nascent democracy out of the chaos of war.
"It is especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped save," Obama said Wednesday. Benghazi had been the cradle of the anti-Gaddafi revolt.
"He risked his life to stop a tyrant, then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya. The world needs more Chris Stevenses," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday.
Stevens graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1982 and taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, where "Stevens fell in love with the Middle East," Clinton said. He earned a law degree in 1989.
At age 31, Stevens joined the foreign service in 1991 and had postings in Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh and Jerusalem, before working in Libya.
CHAFED AT SECURITY RESTRICTIONS
Having spent a career operating in dangerous places, Stevens chafed at the limitations required by security, said foreign correspondents who knew him. As a young political officer, Stevens made a point to visit the volatile West Bank. Recently, he went for daily runs in the Libyan countryside.
Stevens' return to Benghazi came when the rebel stronghold provided uncertain footing for a diplomatic mission, with its staff forced to spend their first night aboard a ship and later removed from their first home after a car bombing, according to an account in a State Department magazine.
As he began his assignment as the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Stevens made clear to friends and in public that he regarded the assignment as a chance of a lifetime.
"I was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights," he said in a video made this year. "I'm excited to return."
Friend Robin Wright, a journalist who has worked extensively in the Middle East and is now a scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, called Stevens' death a "travesty."
"He did what a lot of diplomats either can't or won't do: he gets out and he knows everybody," Wright said.
BEFORE YOU GO
09/15/2012 10:05 PM EDT
Egypt PM: Some Cairo Protesters Paid To Protest
Egypt's Prime Minister Hesham Kandil told CNN that some people involved in the recent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo were paid to protest. He also said that some were there on their own accord, though.
For more on his comments, click here.
09/15/2012 8:16 PM EDT
Libya President: 'Foreigners' Involved In Attack
Both Libyans and "foreigners" carried out the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, said Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf.
"We have assumptions and we have some information, and all that information we have now leads to the same direction about the perpetrators, the criminals," he told NBC.
For more on Magariaf's comments, click here.
09/15/2012 7:58 PM EDT
More Details Of Libya Attack Emerge
A local security official walked CNN through the horrific attacks in Libya that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens dead. Read the report here.
09/15/2012 7:32 PM EDT
Senior Libya Official Tells CNN: No Evidence That Attack Was Pre-Planned
@ JomanaCNN :
One senior official just told me they have no evidence yet to support President's statements that attack was pre-planned. #Libya
09/15/2012 7:24 PM EDT
U.S. Issues Warnings For Sudan, Tunisia
From the AP:
WASHINGTON — The State Department on Saturday ordered the departure of all family members and non-essential U.S. government personnel from posts in Sudan and Tunisia and is issuing travel warnings to American citizens in the two countries due to security concerns over anti-American violence.
"Given the security situation in Tunis and Khartoum, the State Department has ordered the departure of all family members and non-emergency personnel from both posts, and issued parallel travel warnings to American citizens," said Victoria Nuland, a department spokeswoman.
To read more, click here.
09/15/2012 7:19 PM EDT
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula
In this image from video provided by CBS2-KCAL9, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man behind the anti-Muslim movie that has inflamed the Middle East, is escorted by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies from his home, early Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Cerritos, Calif. Nakoula, 55, was interviewed by federal probation officers at a Los Angeles sheriff's station but was not arrested or detained, authorities said early Saturday. (AP Photo/CBS2-KCAL9)
09/15/2012 5:10 PM EDT
Image Purportedly Shows Camp Bastion
This image from AP video obtained from the SITE Intel Group posted by al-Emarah Jihadi Studio, an Afghan Taliban media unit who released two clips on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, purports to show smoke rising over Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, after what the Taliban media unit says is an attack at the base. (AP Photo/SITE Intelligence Group)
09/15/2012 5:03 PM EDT
Far-Right Group Trying To Screen Anti-Islam Film
According to an AFP report, a far-right group in Germany wants to screen 'Innocence of Muslims,' the film that sparked protests around the world, in Berlin.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told Der Spiegel he would use every legal means at his disposal to stop them.
“Such groups and organizations only want to provoke Germany’s Muslims,” he said, accusing them of recklessly pouring oil on the fire.
Read the full story here.
09/15/2012 4:36 PM EDT
Libyan President Meets U.S. Consulate Guard
President Mohammed el-Megarif, fourth right, meets an unidentified Libyan guard of the U.S. Consulate who was wounded following the deadly attack on September 11, 2012, at Benghazi Medical Center in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. (AP Photo)
09/15/2012 4:30 PM EDT
Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority on Saturday condemned the attacks on U.S. embassies as un-Islamic, according to a report by Reuters.
"It is forbidden to punish the innocent for the wicked crimes of the guilty, or to attack those who have been granted protection of their lives and property, or to expose public buildings to fire or destruction," he said in a speech carried by state news agency SPA.
Read the full report here.