Nuclear Ambitions Ebb and Flow
On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake > the largest earthquake in 40 years—ruptured the floor of the Indian Ocean off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The earthquake triggered a tsunami so powerful that the waves caused casualties on the coast of Africa and were detected as far away as the East Coast of the United States. The death toll remains uncertain, but most estimates state that the final tally will exceed 225,000, making it by far the deadliest tsunami in history. Eleven countries bordering the Indian Ocean—all relatively poor and vulnerable—suffered devastation, and millions were left homeless. Hardest hit were Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and the Maldives. The catastrophic damage included the destruction of entire cities, the contamination of farmland and forests, and the depletion of fishing stocks. Even countries with relatively low death tolls have suffered enormous damage—the Maldives, for example, had damage amounting to 62% of its GDP. Worldwide aid to the afflicted countries was swift and generous.
See also Tsunami.
Aceh: Civil War Ends Amid Destruction
The Asian tsunami focused its worst destruction on the northern Indonesian province of Aceh, killing more than 130,000 people and leaving half a million homeless. But the disaster and relief efforts also led to renewed negotiations to end the three-decades-long civil war. On Aug. 15, the Indonesian government signed a peace deal with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) that was meant to end Aceh’s struggle to secede from Indonesia and create an independent Islamic state. Indonesia’s attempts to crush the movement had led to a brutal military occupation, and the war has claimed 15,000 lives, many of them civilians. As part of the accord, the GAM agreed to give up its demand for independence in exchange for the right to establish political parties and 70% of the revenues from its considerable oil and gas reserves. The last peace deal, signed just two years earlier, unraveled within six months when the rebels failed to disarm and Indonesia failed to withdraw troops. But despite widespread skepticism about the new accord, both sides stuck to its terms, and in December, the last of Indonesia's 24,000 troops withdrew.
See also Indonesia.
The London Terrorist Bombing
On July 7, 2005, London became the victim of a terrorist bombing, Britain's worst attack since World War II. Four bombs exploded in three subway stations and on one double-decker bus during the morning rush hour, killing 52 and wounding more than 700. A group calling itself the Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe claimed responsibility. A week later, on July 21, terrorists attempted another attack on the transit system, but the bombs failed to explode. The following day, London police shot and killed a Brazilian electrician on a subway train in what they said was a case of mistaken identity. It was later revealed that the 27-year-old had exhibited none of the suspicious behavior attributed to him by the police.
A leaked document by a top British government official warned Prime Minister Blair more than a year before the bombings that Britain's engagement in Iraq was fueling Islamic extremism and the perception that the country was a “crusader state,” but Blair has repeatedly denied such a link, contending that the bombings were the result of an “evil ideology” that had taken root before the Iraq war.
Blair, who was narrowly reelected to a third term as the country's prime minister in May, proposed legislation that would toughen the country’s antiterrorism measures. These include deporting individuals and banning organizations that “foment, justify, or glorify terrorist violence,” and giving the police new powers to arrest terrorism suspects. Blair suffered his first major political defeat as prime minister in November, when his proposal that terrorist suspects could be held without charge for up to 90 days was rejected.
See also United Kingdom.
Withdrawal from Gaza
In mid-August, some 8,000 Israeli settlers were evacuated from the Gaza Strip, which had been occupied by Israel for the previous 38 years. The withdrawal involved 21 Gaza settlements as well as four of the more isolated settlements on the West Bank. The majority of Israelis supported Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral plan—which he pushed through the Knesset in Oct. 2004—viewing it as Israel's just and humane response toward the Palestinians as well as a significant step toward real security for Israelis. But tens of thousands on the right protested that Sharon, an architect of the settlement movement, had become the agent of Gaza's dismantlement. It was seen as an enormous betrayal.
While Sharon has been lauded for what has arguably been the most significant step in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since the Oslo peace accord, the prime minister’s unstated motives in conceding Gaza have been generally assumed to be the strengthening of Israel's hold on the West Bank. This assumption has been borne out by Sharon’s approval of additional West Bank housing construction and in pressing ahead with the controversial West Bank security barrier—concrete “facts on the ground” complicating a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank.
For Palestinians living in Gaza, the withdrawal meant a significant improvement in the quality of life. Gaza, which has the world's highest population density, has gained 25% more land and plans on replacing the settlers' single-family houses with apartment buildings to alleviate a severe housing shortage. A private group of American philanthropists purchased 800 acres of greenhouses from the departing settlers and donated them to the Palestinians, preserving an important source of jobs and revenue in an area with 40% unemployment. The next move toward peace is in Palestinian hands and hinges on whether President Mahmoud Abbas can effectively govern Gaza and stem the influence of militant groups.
Israel's political parties underwent a seismic shift in late November. The Labor Party elected left-leaning Amir Peretz as their new leader, a defeat for long-time leader Shimon Peres. Perez announced that he would break the coalition formed with the Likud party. Shortly thereafter Prime Minister Sharon quit the Likud party—a party he helped found—and formed a new, more centrist Kadima ( “Forward”) party. The Likud party had largely disapproved of the Gaza withdrawal Sharon sponsored. General elections will be held in March 2006. Opinion polls in Dec. 2005 indicated that Sharon's new party would win the election.
War and Peace in Sudan
On Jan. 9, 2005, after three years of negotiations, a peace deal ended Sudan’s two-decades-long civil war. The conflict between the Arab-Muslim government of the North and the black Christian and animist South had left a staggering 2 million dead. The protracted negotiations had largely stalled over oil reserves, 75% of which are located in the South. International pressure, especially from the U.S., had worn down the Khartoum government's intransigence. The peace agreement gave roughly half of Sudan’s oil wealth to the south, as well as nearly complete autonomy and the right to secede after six years. John Garang, the charismatic leader of the largest rebel group, the SPLA, was sworn in as vice president in July as part of the power-sharing agreement. But the entire peace process was nearly upended just weeks later when Garang was killed in a helicopter crash. Violent rioting erupted in Khartoum, killing nearly 100. Garang’s deputy, Salva Kiir, was quickly sworn in as the new vice-president, and both North and South vowed that the peace agreement, so long in the making, would hold.
No peace, however, appears in sight for the western region of Sudan, where the massacres in the Darfur region continued. The Janjaweed, pro-government Arabic militias, continued to slaughter black villagers and rebel groups with impunity. By the fall of 2005, between 200,000 and 400,000 Darfuris had been killed and more than 2 million displaced. International condemnation and a modest force of African Union peacekeepers seemed to slow the violence in the first half of 2005, but a UN report at the end of 2005 indicated that the violence had again picked up since September. According to the UN, Darfur remains the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
See also Sudan.
On Feb. 14, 2005, Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing. Hariri was largely responsible for the country’s economic rebirth over the past decade and had been a vigorous critic of Syria’s decades-long occupation of Lebanon. Suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination ignited a popular revolt in the country, which called for the resignation of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government and Syria's military withdrawal from the country. Weeks of protests by Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze parties were buttressed by widespread international pressure condemning Syria’s continuing iron grip on its fragile neighbor. But the “cedar revolution” was challenged by massive pro-Syrian rallies, primarily made up of Shiites and sponsored by the militant group Hezbollah. As the political winds shifted back and forth in March and April, pro-Syrian prime minister Omar Karami resigned, was reappointed, and resigned a final time.
Bowing to pressure in mid-March, Syria withdrew 4,000 troops and redeployed the remaining 10,000 to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which borders Syria. On April 26, after 29 years of occupation, Syria withdrew entirely.
After May and June parliamentary elections, former finance minister Fouad Siniora, who was closely associated with Hariri, became prime minister. President Emile Lahoud, whose term was extended by three years in 2004 at Syria’s insistence, remains the last significant vestige of Syrian control.
On Sept. 1, four were charged in the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The commander of Lebanon's Republican Guard, the former head of general security, the former chief of Lebanon's police, and the former military intelligence officer were indicted for the February assassination. On Oct. 20, the UN released a report concluding that the assassination was carefully organized by Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials, including Syria's military intelligence chief, Asef Shawkat, who is the brother-in-law of Syrian president Bashar Assad. Syrian officials have obstructed the investigation at each step along the way.
An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6 struck the Kashmir region on October 8, 2005. The epicenter was in the Pakistani-controlled part of the Kashmir region; about half of the region’s capital city, Muzaffarabad, has been destroyed. More than 81,000 people were killed and 3 million left homeless. India suffered about 1,300 casualties.
In sharp contrast to the generosity that quickly followed the Asian tsunami, response to the Pakistani earthquake was lukewarm. Weeks after the disaster, the UN had only managed to raise 20% of the $550 million it sought. By November, however, international donors has pledged the full amount requested by Pakistan.
The disaster hit at the onset the Himalayan winter, and the United Nations has warned the death toll could rise significantly from hunger, disease and exposure. Many rural villages were too remote for aid workers to reach, leaving thousands vulnerable to the elements.
Nuclear Ambitions Ebb and Flow
In June 2005, Iran elected a new president—former Teheran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner and conservative—who staunchly supported the continuation of Iran's nuclear pursuits. In Aug. 2005, he rejected an EU disarmament plan, backed by the U.S., which had been negotiated over the past two years, and resumed uranium conversion.
In Sept. 2005, the fourth round of nuclear negotiations involving North Korea took place. Since 2003, all six-nation talks between the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea had ended in deadlock. This time, however, North Korea made a vague promise with an unspecified timetable agreeing to abandon its nuclear-weapons program and rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Dec. 2005 follow-up negotiations again ended without progress and with an exchange of hostile rhetoric: the U.S. ambassador to South Korea called North Korea a “criminal regime” seven times in one speech, and North Korea retorted that the Bush administration is “made up of political imbeciles”.