An American physician who has been doing volunteer work in East Timor said the troubled region might one day develop a tourist trade, a marble industry and coffee and oil exports but that careful planning is needed during the delicate period after Monday's referendum on its political future.

Dan Murphy said he is concerned about what happens between now and November, when the Indonesian parliament is scheduled to meet to transfer sovereignty to East Timor through the United Nations if the separatist vote carried Monday's election, and independence comes to fruition.

Indonesian military police and soldiers are still there, as are armed militias that oppose breaking with Indonesia, he pointed out. And "nobody knows how the United Nations, Portugal and Indonesia will administer East Timor during that interval" before the sovereignty question is resolved.

When Suharto was forced to resign the Indonesian presidency last year after 32 years in power, Murphy, a general practitioner from Iowa, decided it was a good time to go to East Timor and treat people suffering from tuberculosis, malaria and malnutrition. "The fall of Suharto gave Timor a chance. All of a sudden there was freedom of the press in Indonesia," he said in an interview Monday.

Soon after Indonesia and Portugal -- which ruled East Timor until 1975 -- agreed this year on a direct ballot in which the Timorese would choose between autonomy within Indonesia and independence, Murphy started treating trauma cases in his clinic. "Militias loyal to Indonesia were not going away. They were becoming more brutal," he said. "It was the militia's last stand, and their only strategy was terror."

Murphy, who was in family practice in Iowa for 15 years and also ran a drug addiction treatment clinic, insists that his mission is that of a healer, not a nation builder. "To be part of and form a new health-care system in Timor, that is the dream," he said. "I am happiest if I am in a room full of patients and I can figure out what is wrong with them. I also like teaching and health planning."

He could not conceal his excitement, however, at witnessing the birth of a nation. "This has been a tremendous ride, a challenge," he said. "Getting to see people vote after all they have been through is very inspiring. We can't let up on the pressure. Indonesia can still throw in a wrench or two, but this is its chance to show its best face to the world."

With Indonesian professors streaming out of East Timor, and most East Timorese university students studying elsewhere in Indonesia, establishing educational institutions should be an important task for an independent East Timor, Murphy said. Intelligent leadership by returning exiles and the Catholic Church and proper prioritizing among the scores of nongovernmental groups streaming into East Timor are essential, he emphasized.

Murphy was not allowed to reenter East Timor three weeks ago because he was on a tourist visa. He has been meeting with State Department officials, seeking diplomatic pressure on Indonesia to let him back in.

Where's the Ambassador?

Even desert soothsayers who can decipher shell imprints in the sand might find it difficult to divine why Syrian Ambassador Walid Moualem has made himself so scarce this summer. He left Washington on July 9, days before the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, telling everyone that he had requested a one-week vacation in Syria. More than seven weeks later, there is still no sign of the soft-spoken ambassador amid a swirl of unverifyable scenarios, from his possible promotion to foreign minister to his improbable demotion ahead of the resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

One U.S. official said there are two plausible and logical explanations for his disappearance. One is that Syrian President Hafez Assad has decided to keep Moualem "out of harm's way," a classic Syrian diplomatic hedge against media exposure or chance encounters with Israeli officials or go-betweens before the real bargaining begins, assuming talks resume. The other is that the Syrian leader wanted to keep his key ambassador by his side as he awaits the twice-deferred visit of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to the Middle East. She leaves today and will stop in the Syrian capital, Damascus, as well as Alexandria, Egypt, and Jerusalem.

U.S. officials were tight-lipped this week about whether she will visit Beirut. "Only the security people know," one Arab ambassador said. Lebanese Ambassador Farid Abboud is heading home for a week, just in case Lebanon is included on her itinerary, he said during a dinner Monday night for David Satterfield, the U.S. ambassador to Beirut, who is returning there after a three-week holiday. In toasting Satterfield, Abboud quipped: "David has managed to love Lebanon, though he knows it very well."