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2003 News of the World

—Borgna Brunner

Middle East: Road Map to Nowhere

In an attempt to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Israel and the United States resolved to circumvent Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, whom Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon called “irrelevant” and an obstacle. Under U.S. pressure, Arafat reluctantly appointed a prime minister in April, who was to replace him in negotiating the peace process. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, formerly Arafat's second-in-command, was well-respected internationally but had virtually no political base among Palestinians. Unlike Arafat, however, he unequivocally rejected the violence of the intifada. On May 1, the “Quartet” (the U.S., UN, EU, and Russia) unfurled the “road map” for peace, which ultimately envisioned the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. Although Sharon publicly acknowledged the need for a Palestinian state and Abbas committed himself to ending Palestinian violence, the road map quickly led nowhere, with neither side honoring their obligations: Abbas, with little real political power, did not disable terrorist organizations, and Sharon did not dismantle settlements, much less prevent new ones from cropping up. Sharon also persisted in building the highly controversial security barrier dividing Israeli and Palestinian areas (in October, a UN resolution condemning the barrier passed 144–4, with only the U.S., Israel, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands supporting it). Although three militant Palestinian groups (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah) declared a cease-fire on June 29, attacks resumed within weeks.

Hopes for the road map were shattered in August with the suicide bombing of an Israeli bus that killed 20, including 6 children, and with Israel's assassination of senior Hamas leader Abu Shanab. As Israel stepped up its “targeted killings” and Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians continued, Mahmoud Abbas resigned, frustrated with the constant power wrangling with Arafat and his untenable role. Considered a puppet by the Palestinians, he was expected to perform the impossible by the Quartet. Abbas was eventually replaced by Ahmed Qurei. In September, further exacerbating tensions and alarming much of the world, Israel announced that it was prepared to “remove” Arafat. Critics charged that to exile or assassinate the Palestinians' elected leader, however obstructionist he had become, was not only to renounce the pursuit of peace but to invite increased violence. About 2,400 Palestinians and 800 Israelis have been killed since the intifada began in Sept. 2000.

Liberia Freed of Kleptocracy

Charles Taylor, Liberia's warlord-turned-president, was finally forced out of office by rebel groups and regional peacekeeping forces in August. Taylor, who came to power after a bloody civil war, spent his six-year presidency arming his country while its ruined infrastructure languished. His foreign policy was similarly destructive, supporting brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone's horrific civil war, and fueling conflicts in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. By June 2003, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and other rebels controlled two-thirds of the country, and the increased fighting intensified an already dire humanitarian crisis. Taylor resisted stepping down until the arrival of ECOWAS, the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force (along with a handful of American marines). Gyude Bryant, a businessman seen as a coalition-builder, was selected by the various factions as the new president. By the time he went into exile in Nigeria, Taylor had bankrupted his own country, siphoning off $100 million, and leaving it, according to the New York Times, the world's poorest nation.

Afghanistan at the Brink

Two years after the U.S.-led war resulted in the collapse of the Taliban, Afghanistan remained in a desperately fragile state, ruled by warlords and coming under renewed attack by Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. The U.S. maintained 11,500 troops in the country to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgency, but with its efforts focused on Iraq, the U.S.'s commitment to securing Afghanistan's stability waned. Most-wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden, still at large, was rarely even mentioned publicly by the administration.

Although Afghanistan made modest progress toward developing a constitution and establishing an army, President Hamid Karzai had almost no control over his country beyond the capital. The 5,500-member international peacekeeping force was reluctant to venture beyond Kabul, given the country's violent lawlessness. In August, NATO assumed command of the peacekeeping troops (most of whom were German and Canadian), and promised a more effective operation. In September Washington also announced it would increase its security and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan—with mounting post-war difficulties in Iraq, President Bush could ill afford a second precarious state on his watch.

On a more hopeful note, in November the Afghan government submitted a draft of its new constitution, and in December, its loya jirga, or grand assembly, began the process of ratifying it. If the constitution is approved, elections for a national assembly will be expected in June 2004.

Axis of Nuclear Provocation

Throughout 2003, North Korea's Kim Il Jong aggressively taunted the U.S. with threats of nuclear proliferation, culminating in an April announcement that the country already possessed nuclear weapons (a claim not verified). It was difficult for much of the world to decipher how Kim expected to accomplish his aims—economic aid for his impoverished nation and a safeguard against U.S. attack—through such reckless brinkmanship. Refusing to bow to North Korea's mercurial demands, the United States informed the nation's diplomats that it would not begin to negotiate until North Korea first dismantled its nuclear program. China took on the role of mediator between North Korea and the U.S., urging less inflexibility on both sides. A modest breakthrough occurred when officials from the U.S., North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan met in August in Beijing, although nothing substantive resulted.

Iran's seemingly illicit nuclear ambitions surfaced in June when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticized the country's concealment of nuclear activities and later discovered traces of highly enriched uranium at two sites. This led to IAEA demands for rigorous oversight; subsequent stonewalling by Iran's hardliners amplified the crisis.

See also 2003 Month-by-Month Current Events; 2003 People in the News.


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