2003 On April 9, 2003, Baghdad fell to American forces as the U.S. took over Iraq. The American occupation of Iraq prompted fresh debates among historians and political analysts as to whether or not the United States had become a world empire. Those who thought they saw an empire often pointed to the Spanish-American War (1898) as the starting point.
Less than a week after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, the United States put Syria on notice that it expected a more cooperative stance on a range of issues. Relations between Syria and the United States had been strained since the civil war in Lebanon (1975 - 1989), and especially since the time Syria and Iran began supporting the militant Lebanese group Hizbullah in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.
In signs of friction points ahead, Syria on April 13 denounced U.S. charges that it was harboring fugitives from Saddam's regime, and Turkey was maintaining thousands of troops on its border with Iraq, deeply mistrustful of Kurdish intentions in Kirkuk (which is claimed by ethnic Turks - Turkmen - as well as Kurds). Turkey was opposed to an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. By April 14, Arab and Turkmen residents of Kirkuk had begun complaining of ethnic cleansing on the part of the Kurdish occupying troops in the city (forced evictions of Arabs and Turkmen from their homes, for example). Kurds complained they had been driven out of their lands and homes in Saddam's "Arabization" campaigns.
According to a BBC report (Apr. 11, 2003), Syrian oil exports suddenly dropped by half following the outbreak of the war in Iraq, believed to be the result of American bombing of a pipeline from Iraq to Syria in the initial phases of the war. If true, it meant that Syria had been illegally importing Iraqi oil (perhaps as much as 200,000 barrels per day) in violation of U.N. sanctions for many years which enabled it to export more of its own oil at a higher price. The American administration suddenly began applying public pressure on Syria: accusing it of funneling supplies to the Iraqi army, harboring fugitives from the Iraqi regime, storing chemical weapons, and being a "terrorist state" for supporting militant groups hostile to Israel (such as Hizbullah which operated in south Lebanon). At the same time, there was no public mention of the fact that the Syrian and Iraqi regimes had been hostile to one another throughout the long rule of Hafez al-Asad, who died in 2000, and that Syrian troops had fought against Iraq alongside American soldiers in the coalition which liberated Kuwait in 1991. The American pressure seemed to be a message to Syria's new, young ruler, Bashar al-Asad (during whose tenure relations between Syria and Iraq had begun to warm up) that the United States was willing to push Syria to become more compliant with Israeli and American aims in the region. (see also)
On April 16, 2003, U.S. troops in Baghdad captured fugitive Palestinian guerilla leader Muhammad ("Abu") Abbas, leader of the group of commandos that hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985. The Palestinians argued that under a 1995 pact, part of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Palestinian officials were not to be prosecuted for crimes committed before 1993. The Israeli Supreme Court reinforced that agreement in 1998 when it specifically declared Abbas immune from prosecution. (BBC April 17, 2003) Abbas had made many regular visits to Gaza and the West Bank with U.S. and Israeli approval. The United States argued that it had not been a party to the 1995 pact or any other agreements guaranteeing Abbas amnesty.
On April 17, Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Hariri unveiled his new cabinet, seen by many as the most pro-Syrian in years (good news for Syria, which was looking for ways to strengthen its hand in the face of increased pressure from the United States).
On April 29, 2003, the Palestinian legislature approved the new cabinet of the Palestinian government's first Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas ("Abu Mazen"), in advance of the publication of a new "Roadmap" peace plan conceived jointly by the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and the U.N. (Text at MidEastWeb) The plan called for Israel to pull back from autonomous Palestinian areas, freeze building of settlements, and end attacks on Palestinian militants. The plan further called for the dismantling of Palestinian militant groups, the setting up of a provisional Palestinian state with temporary borders by the end of 2003, and the creation of a permanent state within three years (President Bush had first called for the creation of a Palestinian state in October of 2001 (see also). The 29th ended with a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv. (complete coverage of the al-Aqsa Uprising, which began in the fall of 2000). The following day, the parties to the conflict announced their opening positions: the Palestinians said they accepted the whole package as presented; the Israelis said that every point was up for negotiation.
By mid May, the plan was already in deep trouble with further Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel and the West Bank and Israeli refusal to accept the plan dimming hopes of a settlement. At least one Israeli cabinet minister, Minister of Tourism (and Rabbi) Benyamin Elon, was openly resurrecting an older radical Zionist slogan - "Jordan is Palestine"- as the ultimate solution: that is to say, ethnic cleansing of Palestine, transfer of Palestinians to Jordan. Elon had been courting right wing American evangelical Christians for support of the notion that Israel should take ownership to all of ancient Judea and Samaria, lands divinely "promised" to Abraham and his descendants (with the pointed exception of Ishmael, the branch of the family Muslims identified with) in the Book of Genesis. For some orthodox Jews, Jewish possession of the land was a precondition for the coming of the Messiah (see also) and for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, Jewish ownership of all the Holy Land was the necessary precondition for the second coming of Jesus (a belief that went back at least as far as English Puritans in the seventeenth century.) (see James Bennet, "Crossing Jordan: The Exit That Isn't on Bush's Roadmap," New York Times, May 18, 2003) Events took a more hopeful turn on May 25 when Israel gave its qualified support to the Roadmap (details). By the end of the year, though, serious cracks in the plan developed as Israel showed new signs that it planned to go it alone.
In early May, 2003, Iran made a quiet overture to the United States calling for negotiations on an Iranian proposal to make concessions on its nuclear development program and its support of Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad in exchange for American agreement to end sanctions and to stop trying to destabilize Iran. The United States rejected this overture from a country President Bush had included in his "axis of evil."
On May 12, 2003, eight Americans were among the 34 foreign nationals killed in simultaneous suicide bomb attacks on three residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At least fifty were injured. al-Qaeda was believed to be responsible (see also November, 2003 and spring, 2004). The same day, a rebel suicide truck bomb attack in Chechnya claimed at least 54 lives and injured 84 people. (More on Chechnya, see also, and also, and also) The following day, a female suicide bomber struck again in Chechnya killing at least fourteen. On May 17, suicide bombers struck multiple targets in Casablanca (Morocco) killing 40.
The attacks in Saudi Arabia provoked a strong response among Saudis. Editorials condemned the attacks and the country's ulema issued its strongest condemnation of terrorism to date. Saudis had been slow to respond to the extremism in their midst. But after the attacks, there were signs that post-9/11 denials of the problem were beginning to give way to growing determination to confront Wahhabi religious extremism in the kingdom. Commenting on those responsible for the carnage, the Saudi daily al-Watan editorialized on May 17, "Their filthy war is in the first degree a war against Islam itself and against Muslims wherever they are." (see other excerpts from editorials in the Arab world) By late May, Wahhabi clerics had begun striking back at their new critics: al-Watan's editor, Jamal Khashoggi, was fired by the Saudi government on May 27.
In mid May, Ali Lamrabet, a Moroccan newspaper editor, began a four year prison term for publishing articles and cartoons insulting King Mohamed VI.
Also on May 22, a massive earthquake struck just east of Algiers killing over 2,000 and injuring over 9,000. Charges of corruption and shoddy building construction and inspection practices were leveled at the government and there were calls for the resignation of the president, Abdelazziz Bouteflika. As was the case with an earthquake in Egypt in 1992, there were reports that members of Muslim radical groups, known locally as boulahya ("bearded ones"), were providing more actual relief to victims than the government. (more on Algeria)
On May 25, 2003, the Israeli cabinet gave its qualified support to the U.S. sponsored "Roadmap" peace plan. This event marked the first time any Israeli government had given formal approval to the idea of a Palestinian state. The endorsement pointedly did not include the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a key Palestinian demand. (more on the conflict) The following day, Sharon for the first time in public used the word "occupation" to refer to the Israeli role in the territories saying in a speech to hostile hardliners, ''To keep 3.5 million people under occupation is bad for us and them." (Chicago Sun-Times, May 27, 2003)
In late May, 2003, 127 members of the reformist minded Iranian parliament signed a letter calling upon the head of Shia judiciary, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stop resisting the reform process. At the same time, the United States began increasing pressure on Iran warning it not to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs next door and calling upon it to cooperate better in the process of apprehending terrorists (on the 29th, al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that among the militants Iran had in custody was al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith).
On May 28, 2003, the BBC cited a newly released report from the Rift Valley Institute claiming that 11,000 people had been abducted by raiders in the Sudan over the preceding twenty years and that many of them had been forced into slavery.
On June 1, Iran arrested nine (among them four U.S. military personnel) whose boats navigating the Shatt al-Arab waterway may have strayed into Iranian controlled waters. After questioning, all (including the Americans) but two were released. A dispute over navigation rights in the Shatt al-Arab waterway was one of the factors in the eight year war between Iran and Iraq, which began in 1980.
On June 3, U.S. President Bush, under pressure worldwide to become personally involved in the Middle East peace process, told a summit of Arab leaders at Sharm al-Sheikh that his "Roadmap" peace plan was committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The following day, Bush met with Israel's P.M. Sharon and the Palestinian P.M. Mahmoud Abbas at Aqaba to discuss implementation of the "Roadmap." Hardliners on both sides soon made good on threats to derail the renewed efforts to achieve peace.
Also on June 3, 2003, the Pew Global Attitudes Project released its "Views of a Changing World 2003" report. While international popular approval for globalization and democratization was surging, many regarded the United Nations as the major victim of the war in Iraq and support for the United States had plummeted, particularly in the Muslim world. The report said that majorities in the Palestinian Authority [71%], Indonesia [58%] and Jordan [55%] and nearly half in Pakistan and Morocco trusted Osama bin Laden "to do the right thing regarding world affairs."
On June 26, 2003, renowned Syrian born poet Ali Ahmad Said (penname "Adonis") spoke out strongly against the practice of the veiling of women, especially in Western countries. And, at the "Conference for Arab Culture," which took place in Cairo from July 1-3, 2003, Arab literary figures and artists criticized the dominant role of religion in culture and politics. By the following December, strong political movements in France and in at least two German states had been set in motion to ban the wearing of veils in public schools.
On July 11, 2003, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar (in Cairo), Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, one of the Muslim world's most prominent authorities, condemned suicide attacks saying groups that carried them out were enemies of Islam. He spoke at an international conference of Muslim leaders in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. His remarks represented a shift in position (see his statement of August 5, 1997, for example) and followed a pattern of growing willingness on the part of Muslims, especially since the Riyadh bombings in May, to face up to the threat of religious extremism in their midst. Tantawi's own views had begun to change in the aftermath of 9/11.
On July 22, Shimon Peres, leader of Israel's Labor Party, proposed putting religious shrines in Jerusalem under United Nations administration. On August 1, the Sharon government offered building permits for 22 additional homes in the Neveh Dekalim settlement in Gaza over strong objections by the U.S.
In late July, 2003, the Turkish Parliament voted to limit the power of the military to interpose itself in the nation's politics, as had been the custom since Ataturk. The National Security Council (composed of military and political leaders with its Secretary General required to be a four-star general) was stripped of its powers and reduced to an advisory role. Turkey's armed forces had removed governments four times since 1960 (recent events in Turkey). The democratizing reforms were taken to smooth the way for Turkey's acceptance into the European Union. (New York Times, August 4, 2003)
On August 1, Algeria announced that Tamazight, the language of many Berbers and other minorities living in Algeria, would henceforth be taught in schools, responding to a demand voiced during protests in 2001.
On August 8, 2003, Hizbullah troops shelled the disputed Shebaa Farms area along Israel's northern border with Lebanon in response to their suspicions of Israeli involvement in a car bombing earlier in the week in Beirut that killed a Hizbullah leader. The following day, Hizbullah retaliated by shelling the northern Israeli town of Shlomi killing a teenage boy. On the 10th, Israeli warplanes attacked Hizbullah positions in southern Lebanon.
On August 13, 2003, Iran's Guardian Council, an unelected body controlled by hard line Shia clerics, overruled Parliament and preempted the ratification of an international treaty on women's rights. The council argued that the treaty contradicted Islamic sharia law.
In early August, 2003, four bomb attacks, three in Iraq and one in Jerusalem, shook American confidence in its ability to steer events and maintain security in the Middle East (specifically in Iraq and with respect to the "Roadmap" peace plan for Israel and the Palestinian Authority). On August 7, at least 11 were killed and 50 injured in a truck bomb attack on the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad (Jordan had been criticized for cooperating too closely with American interests in Iraq). By this point, American officials knew they were dealing with a well-coordinated insurgency in Iraq. (more)
On August 19, 2003, a pair of suicide bomb attacks, one in Baghdad the other in Jerusalem, further shook Washington and generated even more criticism abroad. In the first, a truck bomb attack on U.N. headquarters in Baghdad , 23 were killed including a senior U.N. official, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The International Red Cross subsequently announced it was cutting back operations in Iraq because of uncertainties over the security situation. (One month later, a suicide bomber struck the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad again killing two prompting the U.N. to scale back its relief operations in Iraq.) In Jerusalem, militant Palestinian groups HAMAS and Islamic Jihad took responsibility for a suicide bus bombing that killed 21 and ended a nearly two-month long truce between the warring parties (more). Then on August 29, a car bomb attack in Najaf, burial place of the Shia Imam Ali and a major Shiite shrine, killed moderate Iraqi Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and at least 95 others. Four men with links to al-Qaeda (two Iraqi and two Saudi followers of Wahhabi teachings) were arrested in connection with this attack.
In August, 2003, Afghanistan's Taliban movement, refortified with new recruits from Pakistan and from the al-Qaeda movement, began increasing raids in the south and east of Afghanistan. By 2006, Afghanistan was being targeted by Pakistani suicide bombers who were apparently operating with the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities (New York Times, Feb. 15, 2006).
More bad news for the American peace strategy in the Arab-Israeli conflict ("Roadmap") came on September 6,2003 when Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas resigned. (see "Intifada 2000") A few weeks later, American control over events seemed to slip further after Syria rejected U.S. criticisms that it was permitting militants to slip across its borders into Iraq and had continued its support of Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. At the same time, the Central Bank of Jordan retracted its recent decision to freeze HAMAS accounts (Jordan's population was 60% Palestinian ), and the U.S. cast the single veto of a U.N. resolution condemning Israel's treatment of Yasir Arafat.
On September 12, 2003, the New York Times issued its strongest editorial endorsement yet of a two-state solution to the conflict: "Israel must begin to plan its exit from the West Bank and Gaza not only to permit the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state but to preserve its own future." (see also) The paper noted that at a time when Israel's unemployment rate was soaring and benefits were being cut, hundreds of millions of dollars were being funneled into roads, houses, and security for the 235,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Furthermore, population growth rates among the 4.5 million Arabs (1.3 million of whom were Israeli Arabs) and the 5.4 million Jews meant that, if these rates of growth remained constant, by the year 2020 Jews would be a minority. (full coverage of the conflict)
By September, 2003, all American combat forces in Saudi Arabia had been withdrawn (a key demand of Osama bin Laden). The withdrawal had been jointly announced by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on April 30.
On September 23, 2003, one year after U.S. President Bush proclaimed his "Bush Doctrine" and as he prepared to ask the U.N. for multinational help in stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq, U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan condemned the use of unilateral military action as a violation of the U.N. Charter and criticized the U.S. for resorting to it in Iraq.
On September 24, a conference of delegates from 18 religions in Astana, Kazakhstan condemned terrorism and set up a new organization - The Congress of World and Traditional Religions - aimed at reducing violence between the world's religions. Just days before on September 18, the Dalai Lama in an interview in New York said reluctantly that violence may be required to stop terrorism. He went on to emphasize that in the long run, though, compassion and dialogue were the surer methods. He also indicated it was too early to tell whether or not the war in Iraq was a good choice (New York Times, Sept. 18, 2003).
Also on September 24, 2003, Columbia University Professor Edward Said (born 1935), a highly influential Palestinian -American writer, musician, and critic passed away. His important book Orientalism (1978) set the pace for intellectual discussion of the relationships between the West and the rest of the world (not only the Middle East) in the last quarter of the twentieth century. He was elected to the Palestine National Council in 1977 and worked toward crafting the "two-state solution" officially adopted by the PNC congress at Algiers in 1988. As the Oslo peace process moved forward, Said grew more and more disgruntled with Arafat's leadership and resigned from the PNC in 1991 becoming from that point on one of the severest critics of the Palestinian Authority. He eventually gave up on the "two-state" solution and began advocating a single bi-national state in Palestine. He forged a friendship with Israeli musician and conductor Daniel Barenboim. In 1999, they co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The two gave recitals together, and Said arranged to have Barenboim teach master classes for Palestinian students in the West Bank.
On September 25, 2003 in the Sudan, one of the longest and deadliest civil wars in African history, that of the Muslim north against the Christian and animist southern areas which had broken out in 1955, appeared to be winding down as the parties signed an initial pact aimed at a comprehensive peace. Two million had died in the war. A first-step agreement to officially end the war and share power between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south was signed on May 27, 2004. Then, later that year on December 31, a preliminary full peace accord was ratified in Nairobi, Kenya. The final "Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)" was signed January 9, 2005 (full text of all parts of the CPA at UN Mission in Sudan). CPA was an interim deal intended to last until 2011 at which time southerners were to decide whether or not they wished to remain in union with the north or establish an independent state of their own. Meanwhile, under the provisions of CPA, the political arm of the chief southern rebel group - the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) - joined the national government in Khartoum. SPLM leader John Garang was sworn in as Vice President the following July. Three weeks later, Garang was dead of injuries suffered in an aircraft accident.
One year after the Bali bombing, it appeared that support for an Islamic state in Indonesia had continued to decline from a high in 1955 with support for it in 2003 measuring no more than 15% of the electorate of 200 million. (see Liddle and Mujani, "The Real Face of Indonesian Islam," (OP-ED piece) New York Times, Oct. 11, 2003)
Also on October 16, 2003, shortly before his retirement as Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammed, in an address to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, condemned Islamic terrorist attacks, but then called upon Muslims to fight Jews throughout the world who, he claimed (in tones reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion), "rule the world by proxy." His remarks drew swift condemnation worldwide. (BBC, Oct. 16, 2003). (more) (More: "Wars of Words and Images")
On the same day the Prime Minister was speaking, half way around the world U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld offered no comment on remarks made in churches and prayer breakfasts by Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, an evangelical Christian and commander of the ill-fated 1993 operation "Blackhawk Down" in Somalia, characterizing the god of Muslims as an "idol" and not "a real God." On President Bush's election, General Boykin said, "Why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? And I tell you this morning that he's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this." (New York Times, Oct. 17, 2003) (More: "Wars of Words and Images")
On October 25, a meeting of donor nations in Madrid ended with pledges of $13 billion for the reconstruction of the country, far short of the estimated $56 billion estimated to have been needed even after adding the $20 billion promised by the U.S.
On November 9, 2003, militants believed to be aligned with al-Qaeda attacked a housing compound for foreign workers in Riyadh killing 17, most of them non-Saudi Arabs. In light of similar attacks in May and stepped up efforts by the Saudis to reign in Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia this latest incident indicated that militants' efforts to overthrow the monarchy had perhaps escalated. The attacks came at the end of a week of violence in which Saudi police had captured or killed militants bent on wreaking havoc in Mecca during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Amir Taheri (New York Times, Nov. 15, 2003) wrote that, as had been the case previously in Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan, the game of trying to buy off Islamists in order to hold on to power appeared to have blown up in the faces of the Saudis (see creation of the Muslim World League in 1962 as a means of countering Nasser's pan-Arabism).
On November 15, 2003 in Turkey, simultaneous truck bomb attacks on two Istanbul synagogues during Sabbath prayers killed at least 20 and wounded more than 300 others. A group calling itself the Abu Hafez al-Masri Brigade and associated with Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility. Al-Masri was an al-Qaeda field commander who was killed in action against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. There had been a significant Jewish presence in Turkey for centuries; the Ottomans gave refuge to a large number of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Five days later (Nov. 20), another pair of bombs killed at least 27 and wounded 400. Islamic Great Eastern Raiders' Front, also associated with al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility. (more on Turkey)
On December 5, 2003, a suicide bombing on a commuter train in Chechnya killed at least 42, the presumed work of separatist rebels. (more on Chechnya)
In a stunning reversal for Israel's right wing Likud Party, a debate erupted among party regulars in December, 2003 with some arguing openly for the first time in the party's history that some settlements should be abandoned and a Palestinian state created before Palestinians overtook Israelis in population and began demanding rights of citizenship in Israel itself, thus threatening the identity of Israel as a Jewish state. Population figures at the time were as follows: 5.2 million Jews and 1.3 million Arabs in Israel, and 3.5 million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza with the Arab birth rate higher than the Jewish. (See New York Times, Dec. 13, 2003). The Likud dream of a "Greater Israel" appeared to be crumbling. On the 18th, Israel's P.M. Sharon, mimicking the "go it alone" style of the Bush Doctrine (2002), alarmed American officials by saying that, "If in a few months the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the Roadmap, then Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians." The White House countered, "A settlement must be negotiated and we would oppose any Israeli effort to impose a settlement." (BBC report, Dec. 19, 2003) (see also Intifada 2000) By October, 2004, the change in Likud policy had led to the decision in the Knesset to withdraw from Gaza.
On December 19, 2003, Libya pledged to destroy its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (suspected to be all chemical).
On December 26, 2003, an earthquake in Bam, Iran killed an estimated 50,000. Many blamed sub-standard construction practices for the high death toll. It was the worst earthquake since one in 1990 in Giran, Iran killed 40,000.
In late December, construction on an ambitious new American government-sponsored media project targeting the Arabic speaking world, al-Hurra ("The Free One") neared completion.
Also in 2003, Toronto based Muslim feminist Irshad Manji published a controversial book, The Trouble With Islam Today (New York: St. Martin's) in which she argued that the "tribal," literalist, and absolutist strain of Islam favored in Saudi Arabia had gone global, thanks in no small measure to the kingdom's extravagant petrodollar wealth which had fueled the spread of Wahhabi beliefs and practices worldwide. This "desert Islam," as she also called it, constituted the real imperialism and colonialism afoot in the contemporary Muslim world, far outstripping any such threats from the West. (see "Wars of Words and Images")
2004 The year opened with encouraging news on at least four fronts. First, in Afghanistan, a new constitution was announced by the loya jirga ("grand council") that was seen as the best promise yet that the country might become a modern democracy. The document called for an Islamic state but one that also promised to abide by the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, equal rights for women were guaranteed including a minimum of two seats in parliament for women from each province. (New York Times, Jan. 6, 2004) Secondly, relations between Pakistan and India appeared to be warming considerably as the two nations agreed to hold talks on achieving an agreement over Kashmir. Third, a senior U.S. military commander, Major General Charles Swannack, Jr., announced that attacks on American forces in Iraq had declined 60% since the capture of Saddam Hussein (New York Times, Jan.8, 2004). Fourth, life in Algeria appeared to be on the mend after twelve years of brutal civil war.
On January 8, 2004, the government of Bangladesh responded to the demand of Muslim hardliners that the minority Ahmadiyya movement be declared "non-Muslim" by banning all publications by the sect. The Ahmadiyyas in Bangladesh numbered approximately 100,000. Hardliners had threatened to begin tearing down Ahmadiyya mosques unless the government took action. (BBC, January 9, 2004)
On February 1, at least 244 people were trampled to death in a stampede that occurred during the "stoning Satan" ritual as part of the Hajj (pilgrimage) near Mecca. Saudi Hajj Minister Iyad Madani was quoted as saying, "Caution isn't stronger than fate...All precautions were taken to prevent such an incident, but this is God's will." It was the worst hajj related disaster since 340 pilgrims died in a fire in the tent city at Mina during the 1997 Hajj. (Associated Press)
Also in February 2004, the American led "Greater Middle East Initiative" was published by al-Hayat newspaper and was roundly dismissed by Arabs. Egypt's President Mubarak branded it "delusional." Based on two U.N. Arab Development reports (2002 and 2003) and strongly supported by American neo-conservatives, it called for a range of reforms in political life, women's rights, education, and economics. Former national security adviser in the Carter administration Zbigniew Brzezinski cautioned the U.S. that imposing reforms on the Middle East would fail, that success would only come with the full participation of the parties involved in a climate of "political dignity derived from self-determination." (New York Times, March 8, 2004) A conference of Arab nations met in Alexandria, Egypt in early March to discuss the initiative. By summer, Arabs, led by Egypt, were telling the U.S. that reforms were conditional on the ability of the U.S. to broker a fair settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. By September, though, Egypt had come under challenge from a new group of native activists pushing for change. (more) By the spring of 2006, U.S. officials were admitting that the initiative was faltering (see Hassan Fattah, "Democracy in the Middle East, a U.S. Goal, Falters," New York Times, April10, 2006). By the summer of 2006, with the United States in deep trouble in Iraq, American pressure on the region to reform had decreased to the point where the Egyptian regime felt confident enough to begin rolling back recently broadened freeedom of the press. (see also) By 2007, the Bush administration, under attack from all nearly all quarters and the campaign to stabilize Iraq foundering, began shifting away from its Middle East "freedom agenda" and back toward the focus of previous presidencies: putting security first.
Also in February 2004, Morocco's King Mohammed VI led a parliamentary campaign to reform family law. A new family code (Mudawana) stipulated that women no longer had to obey their husbands and gave women more rights in divorce proceedings and other matters associated with marriage.
On March 2, 2004, more than 140 were killed when suicide bombers detonated devices in Baghdad and Karbala. In Karbala, Shiites were observing the Ashura rites (named for the "tenth" of the month of Muharram) commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn at the hands of the Sunni Caliph Yazid in 680. In the town of Quetta, Pakistan, at least 37 Shiites died from gunfire when their Ashura procession was fired upon. (see also)
On March 8, 2004, the ten states (with their combined populations of 160 million) that depend on the Nile for water began meeting in Uganda under threats from Egypt that any attempts to change distribution of Nile waters would be considered acts of war. (More on tensions over water.)
On March 11, 2004, multiple bombs planted in trains killed 201 in Madrid. One Moroccan, Jamal Zougam, was arrested while five other Moroccans were sought. Zougam was suspected of having connections to a Moroccan militant group, Salafia Jihadia and al-Qaeda. Moroccans were the largest single immigrant group in Spain (20% of all legal immigrants - BBC). The bombings took place a mere three days before Spanish elections in which the pro-U.S., pro-war in Iraq Aznar government was defeated by the Socialists led by incoming P.M. Zapatero, who called the war "an error" and who vowed to bring the 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq home. In this context, some therefore claimed that the real winner of Spain's elections was al-Qaeda.
A Pew Research Center poll published in March found that attitudes against U.S. policies in the Middle East had spread and hardened significantly in countries traditionally allied with the U.S., including its closest ally, Great Britain.
On March 28, 2004, host nation Tunisia abruptly imposed a delay on an impending Arab League summit conference that had been called to respond to the Greater Middle East Initiative. Reasons were not cited publicly; however, Arabs were in no mood to debate an American initiative they already resented in the aftermath of the assassination of HAMAS leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin six days earlier for which America was held responsible along with Israel. There was also speculation that the old Arab League problem of resentment of smaller states being pressured by larger ones played a role. When the conference finally got underway in May, Libyan leader Muamar Qaddafi walked out during a speech by Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa who criticized Arab leaders who cut unilateral deals with non-Arab nations (a reference to Qaddafi's recent rapprochement with Western nations by abandoning his weapons of mass destruction program). The conference concluded with little sense in the Arab world that anything had been accomplished.
In late March, Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent was rocked by several days of violence including suicide bombings that killed scores of people. While President Islam Karimov pointed the finger at the Islamist Hizb al-Tahrir movement, a more likely source of the attacks was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Also in late March, 2004, British police ("Operation Crevice") raided two dozen locations where bomb making materials were found and arrested eight British nationals of Pakistani descent. The incident raised fears that terrorist sleeper cells were preparing for attacks on Great Britain. (see also)
In mid April 2004, the U.N. reported that 110,000 mostly Muslim Black African Sudanese refugees had fled into Chad from the western region of Darfur ("Homeland of the Fur People") to escape attacks by a horse mounted Muslim Arab militia known as the Janjaweed (Ar. jin (demon)+ jawad (horse), thus "demon horses"), hired by the central Sudanese government to put down a rebellion in the area. Thousands more were reported to have been stranded along the border between Chad and the Sudan. Many of the refugees were reported to be close to starvation. Rape and mass execution were standard Janjaweed tactics of intimidation, and by October 70,000 were estimated to have been killed and more than one million displaced in the conflict. The root of the trouble was a rivalry of long-standing between nomadic Arab herders and sedentary Black farmers. The UN on July 30 ordered Sudan to stop the attacks by the Janjaweed and disarm them within thirty days. The government of Sudan countered that international criticism of its internal affairs amounted to an attack on Islam. On August 4, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Khartoum vowing jihad if foreign troops entered the country to try to enforce the UN resolution. In September, the United States officially accused Sudan of "genocide" in Darfur paving the way for tougher sanctions (see also). In 2007, there was hope that the discovery of a vast underground lake in the region might play a role in ending the conflict (more on water problems in the region). And, on July 31, 2007, the UN (Security Council Res. 1769 -- text at BBC) authorized the deployment of a 26,000 strong peacekeeping force to Darfur. By this point, an estimated 200,000 had died in the violence that had begun in 2003.
On April 14, 2004, in a major shift away from the Bush Roadmap Peace plan and decades of U.S. diplomatic policy, a shift that Palestinian leaders immediately denounced as a new Balfour Declaration, President Bush publicly backed Ariel Sharon's plan to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza, but retain settlements in the West Bank and to deny Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war and the 1967 war "right of return" to their homes inside Israel. President Bush stated, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." (New York Times, April 15, 2004) In its lead editorial of April 15, the New York Times, never hostile to Israel's interests, excoriated the President's shift as "a costly blow yesterday to America's credibility as an honest broker for a Middle East peace." This development represented a major step forward in the full implementation of the "Allon Plan," first conceived at the end of the 1967 war. (More) The shift took place against the backdrop of an intensified campaign of targeted killings of militant Palestinian leaders. On May 8, Bush further angered the Palestinians by saying that it may not be possible to meet the Roadmap goal of establishing a Palestinian state by the end of 2005.
On April 21, 2004 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a group linked to al-Qaeda calling itself Kata'ib al-Haramain ("The Squadrons of the Two Holy Places" referring to the two holiest mosques in Islam, Mecca and Medina) carried out a suicide bombing that destroyed the security headquarters and killed four. On May 1, two Americans were among five Western oil workers in the Saudi port of Yanbu killed by gunmen apparently trying to disrupt American-Saudi cooperation on oil production in the country. The American ambassador urged the 30,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia to leave the country. Members of the Saudi ruling family claimed that "Zionists" were behind the latest wave of terror in the kingdom. On May 29, gunmen suspected of being loyal to al-Qaeda attacked the oil facility at Khobar on the coast killing at least fifteen including a ten year old Egyptian boy and taking some fifty hostages. Nine of the hostages had their throats slit. The rest were rescued by Saudi commandos who killed or captured all but two militants (who escaped). (See the Op-Ed piece in Al-Sharq al-Awsat by Suraya al-Shehry, June 2, 2004. See also spring, 2003) Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington wrote in al-Watan following these events: "'It has nothing to do with America or Israel or the Christians or Jews. So let us stop these meaningless justifications for what those criminals are doing and let us stop blaming others while the problem comes from within us." He also argued that the kingdom's religious scholars "have to declare jihad against those deviants and to fully support it, as those who keep silent about the truth are mute devils.'" (quoted from an article by Neil MacFarquhar in New York Times, June 6, 2004) (see also) On June 18, an American engineer was beheaded in Riyadh by militants who had captured him several days earlier.
On April 27, Syrian police broke up an attack by extremists in Mazzeh, a neighborhood of Damascus containing diplomatic missions. The official Syrian news agency called the attackers members of "a terrorist group" (majmu'a irhabiyya). On April 28, at least 93 were dead following a battle between security forces in Thailand and militants in three southern mostly Muslim provinces where Muslims have long chafed under the Buddhist central government (Voice of America, Apr. 28, 04).
On April 29, Salama Na'amat wrote in al-Hayat: "It is not clear that there is an actual American strategy for the Middle East except guaranteeing the flow of oil at a moderate price and defending the security of Israel . As for democracy, stability, and peace, may peace be upon the region." (my translation)
In early May 2004, the world reacted with disgust at graphic images and reports of American and British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. There were calls in Congress for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others. (more)
On May 9, 2004, pro-Russian Chechen President Ahmad Kadyrov was assassinated in a bomb attack in Grozny. Chechen separatists were suspected. (more on Chechnya)
On May 11, 2004, the U.S. banned all exports to Syria except food and medicine citing Syria's alleged support of terrorism, its military presence in Lebanon, and failure to do enough to police its eastern borders.
In a speech on May 25, 2004, Turkey's Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Islamist leaning Justice and Development party that had come to power in 2002, branded Israel "a terrorist state" signaling troubles in the alliance the two nations had forged in 1996. One specific cause of the tension was Israel's support for the Kurds in northern Iraq where Israeli agents had been active (training Kurdish commando units, for example) since the U.S. invasion in 2003 (see Seymour Hersh, "Plan B," The New Yorker, June 28, 2004, 54ff.). Israel reportedly also had its sights set on Iran whom Israel believed to be secretly hard at work developing a nuclear bomb.
Also in May, 2004, Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Khan in the organization's annual report wrote, "The global security agenda promulgated by the U.S. administration is bankrupt of vision and bereft of principle; using pre-emptive military force where and when [the U.S.] chooses has neither increased security nor ensured liberty." In such a climate, Khan indicated, the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison should have come as no surprise to anyone. Worldwide, the report went on, the year of 2003 represented, "the most sustained attack on human rights and international humanitarian law in 50 years." While discourse about reforms increased in the Arab world, high levels of human rights violations continued there and also in Israel. (BBC, May 26, 3004)
Also in May 2004, Nigeria was the scene of Christian violence against Muslims. President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in the state of Plateau. The inter-religious violence paralleled the classic conflict between farmers and nomads: Christians belonging for the most part to the former and Muslims to the latter.
On June 8, 2004, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1546 which detailed the range and the limits of Iraqi sovereignty after the new Iraqi interim government assumed power on June 30 and the U.S. led Coalition Provisional Authority ceased to exist. The Iraqi government was to have full sovereignty including the right to send foreign troops home, but it would not have the power to stop individual military operations. Ambiguities persisted, however, and some thought that while the resolution leant the force of law to Iraqi sovereignty, little change on the ground in the relationship between the Iraqis and their occupiers was forecast for the near term. Not at all satisfied with the outcome were the Kurds, who, under the terms of 1546, were to lose the autonomy they had enjoyed since the setting up of the northern no-fly-zone following the 1991 Gulf war, autonomy they understood to have been legitimized in the Iraqi Interim Constitution of March, 2004. Hence, the Kurds felt the Bush administration had double crossed them by caving in to pressure from Shia leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who had insisted that the promise of autonomy for the Kurds be withdrawn. Iraqi Prime Minister designate, Iyad Allawi (also a Shiite) attempted to head off a confrontation, at least temporarily (the Kurds had threatened to secede from the new Iraqi state), by saying that Iraq would honor the Kurds' claims under the interim constitution until elections could be held.
On June 23, 2004, a joint report by Oxfam and Amnesty International claimed that 90% of all arms delivered to the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America came from the United States, Great Britain, or one of the other three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. In 2002, these deliveries amounted to $15 billion worth of materials. While $900 billion was spent annually on defense, only $60 billion was spent on aid. An Oxfam spokesman said, "It is ironic the body that is supposed to ensure world security is actually promoting global insecurity," (BBC, June 23, 2004)
In the summer and fall of 2004, Pakistan's President Musharraf took steps to increase his power.
On June 27, 2004, the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El-Baradei, called upon Israel to initiate regional discussions on making the Middle East a nuclear free zone. Israel had long maintained a policy of "strategic ambiguity," neither admitting nor denying it had a nuclear weapons potential. Most experts agreed that Israel possessed something on the order of one hundred nuclear weapons (BBC report).
On June 28, 2004 and two days earlier than scheduled (some reasoned, in order to preempt further insurgent attacks -- see BBC Profile of Iraqi Insurgents), the United States formally handed over sovereignty to the new Iraqi government with interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
On July 10, 2004, Egypt's President Mubarak shook up his cabinet (a not particularly significant move that had been expected in response to international demands for political reform). Prime Minister Atef Obeid was out, and Ahmed Nazif, the former Communications Minister, became the new P.M. The new cabinet was seen by some to have been stacked with politicians close to Mubarak's son Gamal renewing speculation that Gamal Mubarak was being groomed as his father's successor. (more on the intrigue over succession)
In mid July, 2004, the U.S. House thwarted a bipartisan attempt to cut military aid to Egypt almost in half for the coming year ($570 million instead of the $1.3 billion the Bush administration was asking for. The cut funds would then have been added to the economic aid going to Egypt - $535 million - so that there would have been no net loss). Legislators who favored the cuts in military aid said it amounted to "protection money" paid to the military of a country that had done little to fight terrorism: Egypt was cited for failing to stop arms smuggling across its border into Gaza and had not contributed any troops to coalition efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. (More on Egypt)
Also in mid July, 2004, the Palestinian Authority plunged into political crisis in the wake of a collapse in security in Gaza. A wave of abductions carried out by militant groups that had grown beyond the capacity of the security forces to control them prompted Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei to offer his resignation, an offer which Arafat refused. A state of emergency was declared in response to the rising lawlessness and Arafat initiated an overhaul of the security forces (BBC July 17, 2004). (More on the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.)
Also in July 2004, the United Nations annual Human Development Report cited a correlation between cultural diversity and economic development. (see The Economist.com, http://www.economist.com/agenda/PrinterFriendly.cfm?Story_ID=2926697)
Also in July 2004, a thaw in the hostile relations between Libya and the West (more) was threatened when revelations of a Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ruling Crown Prince Abdullah surfaced during a trial in the United States. The bad blood between Abdullah and Libyan leader Qaddafi stemmed from an Arab League summit in March 2003 when the two traded insults. (BBC, July 31, 2004)
On August 3, 2004, Israel approved a plan to add 600 additional homes to the Maale Adoumim settlement outside Jerusalem in the West Bank (see also). On the 17th, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Sharon's government had approved plans to construct more than a thousand new apartments in Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The U.S. and the Palestinians criticized the plans charging that they contradicted Israel's pledge in the "Roadmap" peace plan to end settlement building there. Sharon's government countered that the expansion constituted "natural growth." Meanwhile, Sharon's Likud party moved into open rebellion against him rejecting his bid to form a coalition with the Labor party (which supports withdrawal of all 7,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza) by a 58% majority. Since June, Sharon had been governing without a parliamentary majority. (BBC, Aug. 19, 2004) Later in the week, the U.S., anxious to shore up Sharon, quietly modified its views and sent signals that it would approve expansion of some West Bank settlements as long as there was no encroachment upon undeveloped areas of the West Bank (New York Times, August 21, 2004) Since 1992, the settler population on the West Bank had increased by 100,000 to about 250,000 in 2004. The lead editorial in the New York Times on August 24 strongly criticized the expansion ("Folly on the West Bank").
On September 1, 2004, Chechen militants seized a school in the Russian town of Beslan near the border with Chechnya and hundreds were taken hostage, including schoolchildren on their first day of school for the year. The militants demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of Chechnyan rebels from Russian jails. The attack came one day after a female suicide bomber killed ten in Moscow and eight days after two passenger airliners were blown out of the sky killing 89. Two days later after explosions were heard from inside the school, Russian troops stormed the complex. At least 300 were reported killed. A Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, claimed responsibility. He was killed by Russian security forces in July, 2006. (More on Chechnya, also, also, also, also)
In an opinion piece on September 4, 2004 in the pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, influential journalist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed caused a stir in the Arabic speaking world when he wrote, "For certain, not all Muslims are terrorists, but sorrowfully we must say that most of the terrorists in the world are Muslims." (my translation) Rashed criticized Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a popular Islamic jurist regarded by some as a moderate and others as a radical, for issuing fatwas (legal opinions) permitting the killing of American civilians in Iraq. (more on Qaradawi; other Arabs speak out against terror) Later that same month, a debate erupted over the ethics of news organizations broadcasting videos of beheadings and hostages pleading for their lives. Evoking former British PM Margaret Thatcher's phrase "the oxygen of publicity," some argued that these broadcasts encouraged militants to perform gruesome acts as a means of growing their political capital (or to feed their egotistical desires for fame) while others countered that news should not be "sanitized" and that there was no proof that holding back such material increased public safety.
Also in early September, 2004, Lebanon's cabinet and parliament, under pressure from Syria which had 17,000 troops posted in Lebanon and was the chief political broker there, approved a measure to amend the constitution to permit President Emile Lahoud to hold office for another three years (Lahoud's six year term was due to end in November and the constitution prohibited presidents from holding office for two consecutive terms). The international community (through the U.N.), including the U.S., was largely opposed along with many Lebanese clerics and politicians. A Security Council resolution (1559 -- full text) demanded the withdrawal of all international troops from Lebanon and the disarmament of militias such as Hizbullah. Israel again threatened attacks against both Syria and Lebanon. (see)(more on pressure mounted against Syria) Syria's military presence in Lebanon dated back to 1976 when it intervened in the Lebanese civil war. On the 14th, the Arab League took the rare measure of criticizing a fellow Arab state - Syria, in this case - for interfering in the affairs of a neighbor Arab state. And, on October 20, the government of Lebanese Primer Minister Rafik Hariri (who had been pro-Syrian but a rival of Lahoud) resigned (see also). He was replaced by another pro-Syrian, Omar Karameh. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who had recently switched to an anti-Syrian stance, threatened to derail the appointment.
On September 8, 2004, American military deaths in Iraq since the invasion of March, 2003 reached 1,000, more than three times the number who died in the 1991 war. Most had been killed since President Bush declared that major operations in Iraq had ended on May 1, 2003. (BBC, Sept. 8, 2004)
On September 10, Yemeni Zaidi Shiite Sheikh Hussein al-Houthi was killed by security forces. He had led a two-month long insurrection.
On September 15, the U.S., in a rare public rebuke of an ally, accused Saudi Arabia in strong terms of violating religious freedoms. Saudi Arabia's ban on the display of religious symbols (Christian crosses and Christmas trees were cited) in all public places except mosques was singled out.
Also on September 15, 2004, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (an Islamist party) withdrew a controversial proposal to legally criminalize adultery in line with Islamic beliefs. Opposition from European governments who cited the Western fear of blending religion with politics (Turkey was eagerly trying to gain entrance to the European Union at this time) and from women's groups, who feared the measure would encourage a rise in "honor killings" in Turkey, led to Erdogan's decision. (more on recent Turkish history)
In an interview with the BBC on September 15, U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan said the war in Iraq was "illegal." Others argued that the war was legal and fully in accord with previous U.N. Resolutions (especially 1441, 678, and 687).
In late September, as the Muslim world prepared for Ramadan to begin in mid October, Israel provoked Muslim anger by warning that the southern wall of Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque had weakened to the point that it might collapse under the weight of the thousands of pilgrims expected to visit Islam's third holiest pilgrimage site (Mecca and Medina being the other two). Therefore, the Israelis were preparing to limit the numbers of pilgrims who would be allowed on the site at any one time. Muslims blamed Israel for inflammatory interference in the affairs of the holy site similar to that which had provoked the current uprising (then beginning its fourth year) and further blamed Israeli archaeological projects under the site for causing the structural instability.
Also in September, 2004 in Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defeated Megawati Soekarnoputri in the country's first direct presidential election.
The first week of October, 2004 brought particularly bad news for the U.S. Bush administration: its rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 and the way the war was handled. A new report on Iraq's weapons arsenal before the war, written by the president's chosen investigator, Charles Duelfer, Head of the "Iraq Survey Group," indicated that Saddam Hussein had not had the means to produce weapons of mass destruction since 1996 and that he had destroyed his stockpiles of these weapons in an effort to get sanctions lifted, sanctions that, contrary to claims by Bush, had been very effective. The report further revealed that Saddam employed deceptive propaganda that vastly inflated his capacity to deploy weapons of mass destruction in order to deter his old enemy - Iran - as well as his more recent enemy, the United States. (David Johnston, Oct. 7, 2004, A20). (background) By year's end, the U.S. had abandoned the search for WMDs in Iraq. Duelfer's report, in conjunction with the 9/11 Report completed the previous summer and a new CIA report, both of which argued that there was no link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, undercut the major claims the administration presented as pretexts for invading Iraq. Finally, earlier the same week, the Bush administration was embarrassed when former U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer stated that insufficient numbers of American troops had been sent to Iraq in the opening stages of the conflict. (see also)
On October 7, 2004, three bombs went off at resort hotels in Taba and Ras al-Shitan (near Nuweiba) in the Egyptian Sinai as Israeli tourists were completing Sukkot holiday visits. At least 21 people were killed.
On October 12, 2004, Germany deported a radical Turkish Muslim cleric, Metin Kaplan, leader of an organization called "The Caliphate" which had been banned by the government under a new law passed after 9/11. The new law prohibited groups that incited racial hatred. Kaplan was wanted in Turkey for plotting to fly a plane into the tomb of Ataturk. Germany was showing signs of stress around multicultural forces: by 2005, scores of "honor crimes" (some of them murders) had been committed against immigrant Muslim women by male relatives who felt their families had been "dishonored" by the behavior of these women (not wearing the veil in public, for example). Germans began to become aware of a "parallel society" in their midst whose members seemed content to enjoy the personal freedoms of a democracy like Germany's, but who were isolationist in their behavior and contemptuous of the perceived lack of morality and religiosity in their host country (see Peter Schneider, "The New Berlin Wall," New York Times Magazine, Dec. 4, 2005).
On October 22, 2004, a senior U.N. official, Kieran Prendergast briefed the Security Council. He warned that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was worsening and drifting "towards chaos" and that the two sides would be unable to achieve peace without international intervention. The death toll since the outbreak of the 2000 Intifada stood at 3,839 Palestinians and 979 Israelis. (BBC)
On October 25, Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine ben Ali, who had held power for 17 years, was elected to another term. He was said to have won 95% of the vote in this one party country. (see also)
On October 25, the U.N. reported that nearly 380 tons of high explosives were missing from a munitions depot in Iraq: al-Qaqaa, near Baghdad . The depot was supposed to have been under American guard. The materials included RDX and HMX, powerful conventional explosives that can be used to trigger nuclear devices and are commonly used in plastic explosives.
On October 26, 2004, the Israeli Knesset for the first time in Israel's history voted (67-45, 7 abstentions) to remove Jewish settlements from land claimed by the Palestinians. The following August (2005) the withdrawal took place. The decision stemmed from Likud's reversal the previous December of its long standing policy of settlement expansion. Twenty-one settlements housing 8,200 Jewish settlers were to be vacated in Gaza (where 1.3 million Palestinians live) along with four settlements in the West Bank. Sharon had accused Jewish settlers of being under the influence of a "messianic complex" (more on religious claims to the land, Christian as well as Jewish). The prospect of serious fractures in Sharon's Likud government loomed when four members of his cabinet (including his chief rival Benjamin Netanyahu) threatened to resign unless Sharon called for a national referendum on the question. The Knesset vote came on the tenth anniversary of Israel's peace treaty with Jordan and on the ninth anniversary, by the Hebrew calendar, of the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Twenty-two years earlier, Sharon had become the first Israeli leader to close a Jewish settlement (Yamit, 1982). By 2004, some Israeli leaders, including members of Likud and others who had supported the idea of a "greater Israel" at least as far back as the Allon Plan of 1967, were openly backing away from it. (See Ethan Bronner, "Why Greater Israel Never Came to Be," New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2005 and David Remnick, "Checkpoint," The New Yorker, February 7, 2005)
On November 2, 2004, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan passed away. He had been the first president of the United Arab Emirates, which came together into an independent nation in 1971. Oil exports from Abu Dhabi had commenced in 1962. When the British vacated the area (known then as the Trucial States) in 1968, Sheikh Zayed began forging ties with other emirates leading to the new federation. His wise leadership and sound management of oil resources for the good of all the people were hallmarks of his presidency.
In the wake of the November 2, 2004 slaying of Dutch filmmaker and severe critic of Islam Theo Van Gogh (a distant relative of Vincent) by a Muslim extremist in the Netherlands, there was a wave of vandalism against mosques and Muslim schools. The killer, of Moroccan descent, was a member of a group that advocated jihad against non-Muslims. (See also Ayaan al-Hirsi) As was the case throughout Europe at the time, the Netherlands was awakening to severe multicultural stresses stemming from the failure of its Muslim population to fully assimilate into and embrace modern Dutch political and social institutions.
On November 3, 2004, Hamid Karzai was declared the winner of the Oct. 9 elections in Afghanistan having garnered 55.4% of the vote.
In a new book (The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), Middle East scholar Richard Bulliet, prompted by what he perceived as American blunders in Iraq, challenged Bernard Lewis (also, also) and American neo-conservatives who claimed that what the Middle East as a whole (and Iraq in particular) needed was an aggressive Ataturk-style top-down set of reforms with a premium on the secularization of political life (see the Bush administration's "Greater Middle East Initiative," Feb. 2004). At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview with the Financial Times, asserted that the United States would, in the wake of President Bush's reelection, continue to pursue an "aggressive" foreign policy (BBC, Nov. 9, 2004).
On November 10, 2004, the day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan called Laylat al-Qadr ("Night of Power") commemorating the occasion when the Prophet Muhammad first began receiving Quranic revelations, Jordan's King Abdullah II issued what became known as "The Amman Message": a statement declaring Islam to be a religion of peace, tolerance, and moderation that rejects extremism and violence. (full text at the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies).
On November 11, 2004, Yasser Arafat, who co-founded the Palestinian Fatah movement in 1957, died in a hospital bed in Paris at age 75. After a funeral in Cairo, he was buried in his Ramallah headquarters - the Muqata - under soil imported from the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The PLO hierarchy picked former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas ("Abu Mazen"), 69, a respected if not popular leader, to succeed Arafat as Chairman. The speaker of the parliament Rawhi Fattouh became acting President. Prime Minister Ahmed Quraya announced that elections would take place within 60 days, according to law (the last elections were in 1996). President Bush, who had refused to deal with Arafat, announced a new American initiative to get the peace process underway again and said it was his hope to see a Palestinian state established before the end of his second term. Just a few days later (on Nov. 14), Mahmoud Abbas escaped unharmed from what he himself denied was an assassination attempt after Palestinian gunmen opened fire in a mourning tent shouting that Abbas was an "American agent."
On November 18, an Israeli tank unit guarding the Philadelphi Road on the border between Gaza and Egypt mistakenly fired on and killed three Egyptian border guards. The Israelis mistook the Egyptians for smugglers trying to sneak weapons into Gaza for use by Palestinian militants against Israel , a common practice throughout the intifada. Egypt, along with Jordan, were the only Arab countries to have forged peace treaties with Israel.
On November 22, 2004, Iran agreed to suspend its program of enriching uranium according to terms put forth jointly by Britain, France, and Germany.
On December 7, 2004, with the United States becoming bogged down in Iraq, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned that Iran sought to influence the approaching elections in Iraq (scheduled for January 30, 2005) in its wider campaign to spread a "crescent" of Iranian influence throughout the entire Middle East (Washington Post, Dec. 8, 2004). Since its Shiite Muslim revolution in 1979, Iran had been playing for religious leadership of Islam worldwide and for political leadership in the Middle East (see especially).
By mid December, 2004, jockeying between jailed Fatah member Marwan Bargouthi and the new PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas as presidential contenders resolved in Abbas' favor when Bargouthi dropped himself out of contention. Abbas felt strong enough to speak out strongly against the intifada that had raged for four years as destructive for the Palestinian cause (he had done so two years before, too). For the first time since the outbreak of the uprising in 2000, a majority of Palestinians supported the cessation of hostilities against Israel .
On December 17, 2004, the European Union agreed to begin entry talks with Turkey after Turkey agreed to "tacitly" acknowledge the current Greek government of Cyprus (by signing a customs agreement before the following October with all other EU members including Cyprus -- see Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974). Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, who faced challenges at home, immediately began covering himself for his decision by insisting that Turkey's action with respect to Cyprus amounted to a matter of "protocol" and did not count as formal recognition. By October of the following year, some European countries had begun back pedaling on Turkey's admissibility.