War in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, and political change are among the most memorable events of the past year. A look back at the top stories of 2006.
January 2006 dawned with great optimism and hope in Iraq as the previous month's parliamentary elections were certified. Many believed the transformation from Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship to stable democracy was close at hand. But those dreams where shattered in February when a massive bomb destroyed the holiest Shi'ite site in Iraq - the al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra. The nation teetered on the brink of civil war as sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites spiraled out of control. Even the death in June of al Qaida's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, did nothing to stem the bloodshed.
Caught in the middle, in August U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a major operation in an attempt to restore order to Baghdad. But by year's end, U.S. commanders acknowledged efforts to bring peace to the city had made little progress.
Progress was made in holding former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein accountable for crimes against his people when he was found guilty and sentenced to death for the executions of 148 Shi’ite men and boys from the town of Dujail in the 1980s.
The violence and rising death toll in Iraq dominated the news throughout 2006, leading President Bush at a December news conference to make this candid assessment: "It's bad in Iraq."
And Iraq made it bad politically for the president in 2006 as Americans voted for historic change in the United States. After a campaign many in both political parties saw as a referendum on the President's Iraq policy, the opposition Democratic Party swept into control of both houses of Congress. This political shift prompted the President to fire his longtime Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, as well as conduct an extensive reevaluation of his Iraq policy.
Meanwhile, it was a year of change in Afghanistan. Security and peacekeeping duties were passed from U.S. forces to NATO. But a resurgent Taleban, employing tactics honed by insurgents in Iraq, complicated the security situation and prompted NATO to significantly increase its troop strength by year's end.
2006 was a year of transition and turmoil in the Middle East peace process. After Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke in January, Ehud Olmert assumed control of the Israeli government with a promise to continue peace efforts with the Palestinians. But those efforts faltered weeks later when Palestinian voters handed a landslide victory to the Islamic militant group Hamas. In response, Israel and the U.S. cut off payments promised to the Palestinians under the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians escalated, setting off a confrontation in June after Palestinian militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Israel responded by attacking key infrastructure in Gaza. Two weeks later, Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon took two more Israeli soldiers hostage. Mr. Olmert declared the kidnapping an "act of war."
Israeli warplanes and troops swept into Lebanon, battering Hezbollah targets throughout the country. Over the next month the two sides would battle to a stalemate, leaving more than 1400 dead and massive destruction across Lebanon.
Half a world away, North Korea defied urgent pleas and intense pressure from its neighbors to detonate its first nuclear bomb in October. The international community moved swiftly to condemn the test and the U.N. Security Council passed tough sanctions against Pyongyang. By December, North Korea had agreed to return to the stalled six party disarmament talks with Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China and the United States.
Iran's nuclear development program continued and even expanded in 2006 with its actual goal still unclear. Tehran says its program is intended for peaceful energy production. But western nations believe Iran's goal is to create its own nuclear weapon, spawning fears that such a provocative move could lead to a regional nuclear arms race. Iran responded to a U.N. Security Council demand to halt uranium enrichment with delays and a series of half steps, leading many experts to believe that Iran has no intention of giving up its nuclear enrichment program.
While the U.N. worked to stave off a nuclear cataclysm, Indonesia once again faced the fury of nature. Just 17 months after the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the country, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 6,000 people in heavily populated Yogyakarta on the island of Java and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
Rumors that Cuba's President Fidel Castro was terminally ill made headlines during 2006. His brother Raul, Cuba's defense minister, became acting president but has kept a low profile. U.S. officials believe the 80-year-old Cuban dictator suffers from terminal cancer, but the Castro government denies those claims.
In Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur region, a May peace deal between Sudan and the main Darfur rebel group did little to stop the violence, which has now spilled across Sudan's border into neighboring Chad and Central African Republic. Since 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven from their homes in brutal ethnic and tribal warfare. Sudan has rejected deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, insisting instead that a small, overwhelmed African Union force already there be strengthened. As the year came to an end, the international community was considering military options.