The Year in Review: World politics

Bloodshed, bombshells and new beginnings
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The Independent Online

A fleet of dusty buses containing 800 or so men, women and children and their baggage might be the image that best summed up the most significant shift this year in the world's biggest ongoing news story. A few weeks ago, reports from Damascus confirmed that Iraqis who had fled their homeland to seek safety in Syria were preparing to return to Baghdad in a big convoy. So was there finally light at the end of the Iraqi tunnel?

Four-and-a-half million Iraqis have been forced from their homes by the violence unleashed by the US-led invasion and occupation, the biggest displacement of civilians in the region since the Second World War. Towards the end of the year, a reverse exodus appeared to be under way. Was this the turning point? Perhaps when the history books are written, 2007 will be identified as the year when the Iraq catastrophe, which has dragged on longer than the First World War, began to evolve into a story of hope for the civilian population.

It is still too early to draw this conclusion. Iraqi refugees are certainly returning to Baghdad, but this is partly because Syria and the other countries of refuge no longer want to accommodate them. And while violence in the Iraqi capital has subsided, the refugees are also going back to a segregated city: Baghdad is divided into armed sectarian camps.

The new calm in Baghdad is widely, and rightly, attributed to the "surge" the dispatch of 30,000 US reinforcements announced by the Bush administration in January in an effort to regain control of Baghdad and dampen chronic levels of violence. Overseen by its US military architect, General David Petraeus, the surge became the dominant narrative about Iraq in the Western media. As a result of the extra American troops presence, violence dropped in Baghdad, but that was also because the city's Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, stood down his Mehdi Army when the surge began.

Correspondents inside Baghdad report that the crackle of gunfire and the reverberation of bombs going off are now far less frequent there are even attempts to get the city's electricity supply, still only running a few hours a day, switched back on fully. But the surge may simply have added up to a new stage in the war, rather than the beginning of its end. What is clear is that the political chess game accompanying the surge is still fraught with danger.

Four years into the US occupation, Sunni insurgents, once at the core of resisting it, in effect switched sides. This, however, had more to do with the power struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims than with any willingness to help the Americans achieve their goals. Iraq now has an anti-al-Qa'ida Sunni militia, armed and backed by the US, but few can predict how this force will behave if and when American troops withdraw.

The one consolation was perhaps the belated realisation in 2007, in Washington, as elsewhere, that military solutions alone are not enough. A similar acceptance was at play in the ending of the futile British military mission in Basra. The withdrawal was largely symbolic as British forces, which never enjoyed Iraqi support, had long ceased exercising any control. Shia militias now rule Basra and the battles between them and their affiliated racketeers are about local power and access to commodities such as fuel. But the withdrawal surely reflected a pragmatic acceptance that there was no longer an effective role for the troops beyond being targets for militants.

In Afghanistan, the focus also fell on what Britain or its Nato allies could now hope to achieve in the war against the Taliban. Six years after the troops went in, nearly 8,000 British soldiers are still there, yet the writ of Hamid Karzai's government does not extend far beyond the capital, Kabul, and more than half the country is under Taliban control. The suicide bombings which intensified this year demonstrate that the Taliban have adopted the deadly tactics of the Iraq insurgency.

There were tactical victories against the Taliban though they may turn out to be hollow including the recapture by British and Nato forces of the strategic town of Musa Qala in Helmand province in early December. This might explain why the year ended with some detail emerging of President Hamid Karzai's contacts with Taliban leaders and Gordon Brown hinting at the prospect of dealings with the "moderate" Taliban elements coupled with a big push on aid and reconstruction instead of the previously forecast increase in troop levels.

The prospect of a military showdown between the US and Iran may also have receded. While the White House searchlight appeared to swivel ominously from Iraq towards Tehran and the drumbeat of bellicose talk (amid increasingly defiant rhetoric from President Ahmadinejad) drowned out diplomacy in the first half of the year, a new assessment by the US intelligence community took the wind out of the sails of those pushing for military strikes. The report declared with "high confidence" that Iran had stopped a secret nuclear weapons programme in 2003 in response to world pressure.

Even General Musharraf of Pakistan, who provided the international drama of the year by suspending the constitution and plunging his nation into its biggest political crisis since 1999, appeared to accept that he had no choice but to take off his military uniform. Reluctantly he has stood aside as head of the army, clearing the way for elections.

The mayhem in Pakistan continues to bubble beneath the surface. The constitution has been restored but whether free and fair elections can take place in the current climate remains doubtful. The violence that blighted the return of Benazir Bhutto, the disgraced former prime minister, was a stark reminder of Pakistan's political volatility, and President Musharraf's failure until now to allow secular opponents to contest the political space has only encouraged the radicalism and extremism that ultimately could consume Pakistan.

In the Middle East meanwhile, bloody factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah on the streets of Gaza gave us some of the most distressing images of 2007. Hamas gained de facto control of Gaza, dealing a big setback, according to one view, to dreams of Palestinian statehood. Fatah's authority is now confined to the West Bank. But the US-brokered Annapolis Mideast Summit in Maryland at least cleared the way for the first formal Israeli-Palestinian talks for seven years.

If 2007 brought some progress for those advocating the benefits of jaw-jaw, Burma was the depressing exception. For a few hopeful days in September, it seemed possible that a group of Buddhist monks, armed with nothing but their chants and saffron robes, might topple the hated military junta.

The pro-democracy uprising of 2007 was the biggest seen in Burma in 20 years. Its ingredients were memorable: monks on the streets, then tens of thousands of repressed and fearful Burmese people daring to join them on their processions to the golden pagodas of Rangoon, Mandalay and the other Burmese cities; a hated, out of touch and brutal military junta cocooned in its hideaway capital, and the country's best-known pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, put under house arrest.

The Saffron Revolution gripped the world as we watched, transfixed, to see if the Burmese generals could face down international appeals for restraint. Yet the Burma story as it unfolded struck perhaps one of the bleakest notes of the year. Even with the eyes of the world looking on, the regime resorted to a Tiananmen-style crushing of the prayerful rebels with batons and gunfire. According to the UN, the crackdown killed at least 31 people, with up to 4,000 arrested and 1,000 still detained. Three months on, the monasteries have been silenced and thousands of democracy activists have fled to neighbouring Thailand.

What the events in Burma highlighted was that street protests alone cannot undermine a dictatorship's ability to hold out. Intense external pressure from a powerfully influential force such as China, in the case of Burma, is critical. China, perhaps conscious of its own vulnerability to criticism on the eve of hosting the Olympics, did join in calls for restraint by the junta, but otherwise exerted scant pressure. Beijing's economic muscularity continues to see it pursuing its own interests around the world even at the risk of backing unsavoury regimes like the Burmese and the Sudanese.

The suffering in Darfur continued in 2007, with international peacekeeping efforts still ineffective, peace talks launched in Libya in October placed on hold and humanitarian aid agencies finding their access limited. Here, too, China's oil and trade interests were rightly blamed for Beijing's failure to use its huge influence over President Omar al-Bashir to stop the bloodshed. Indeed the onward march of China's trade, investment and influence in Africa, driven by its thirst for resources (a third of China's oil comes from the continent) reached the point where European Union governments sought to review the nature of their own relationship with African governments in an effort to compete.

In the absence of any clear breakthrough in efforts to mediate the Zimbabwe crisis, meanwhile, Robert Mugabe clung on, seeing off rivals within the ruling Zanu PF. He may even have been emboldened by the gesture politics of Gordon Brown's boycott at the Lisbon EU/Africa summit.

Thabo Mbeki of South Africa fought and lost his own battle with challenger Jacob Zuma for control of the ruling ANC against charges of an increasingly autocratic leadership style. In Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo stepped down ahead of elections billed as the most important since independence in 1960, because they marked the first peaceful transition from one civilian ruler to another. In the event, the polls were denounced as among the most flawed in the country's history.

In Europe, excitement at the prospect of the first ever woman president of France reached fever pitch in the spring. But Sgolne Royal, the Socialist candidate, failed to deliver, and Sarkomania swept France instead as Chirac's nemesis, the former Interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, moved into the Elyse Palace.

The Russian love affair with Vladimir Putin showed no sign of abating, the cult around him growing all the more as the former KGB man defied the West, reviving talk of a new cold war. Mr Putin laid the ground for his own power to run on even after his second four-year term as Russian President expires next year, by endorsing his protg Dmitry Medvedev as United Russia's presidential candidate. Tensions with the West will again be on show in coming weeks as Kosovo edges towards a declaration of independence following the failure of international efforts to broker negotiations with Serbia.

The end of the year saw the signing of the new Treaty of Lisbon, which papered over some deep fissures. In theory the treaty streamlines powers and decision making, and should take it a step forward in projecting its voice on the foreign stage. But for European leaders, there was dismay that Gordon Brown's Britain remained aloof and stuck on the sidelines.

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