The Nobel Peace Prize (search) has been awarded to someone in the Middle East three times, and the Middle East is still in flames. Aung San Suu Kyi (search) of Myanmar got it in 1991, and is still under house arrest. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (search) won in 1990, then ordered a bloody crackdown in the Baltic Republics as he sought to save the Soviet Union from collapse.

One of the big questions surrounding Friday's announcement of this year's prize is, will it go to those who tried to achieve peace, or to those who actually achieved it?

Although there are plenty examples of the Nobel honoring a peace effort that became a spectacular failure, there have been clear-cut winners of this avidly watched 103-year-old international honor.

Three prizes went to South Africans, and eventually apartheid gave way to a peaceful multiracial democracy. The 1996 prize was shared by East Timor independence and democracy activists Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, and three years later East Timor was independent of Indonesia.

"The East Timor people give us credit for their independence. Maybe too much credit," said Geir Lundestad, the nonvoting secretary of the awards committee.

"Ramos-Hotra told me that no one (in foreign governments) would even see them before the prize. He said he was sleeping in railroad stations because they had no money. After the prize, they got in anywhere."

The prize, awarded each October by a committee of prominent Norwegians in Oslo, often brings a rush of reaction and debate, praise and condemnation, joy and fury, delight and scorn.

Many of the favorites among this year's record 194 nominees are associated with efforts to curb weapons of mass destruction, at a time when their threat seems more palpable than ever. But as Lundestad points out, the Nobel is "not a magic wand that creates peace. It's a loudspeaker and microphone for the laureates, especially those who are lesser known. It's a door opener."

Sometimes it goes to household names, like former President Jimmy Carter (2002), the Dalai Lama (1989), and sometimes to lesser known figures, among them Iranian human rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi (2003) and Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (1995).

The prize can serve to encourage peace processes, human rights efforts and democratization, or to indirectly criticize governments. Committee member Gunnar Berge has said the award to Carter should "be interpreted as a criticism" of the Bush administration's move to invade Iraq.

The prize opened White House doors to the Dalai Lama in his quest for Tibetan autonomy from China, while Carter says it "was very helpful to me personally and to The Carter Center and its humanitarian projects in many nations around the world."

"Most of our work is among the poorest, most neglected, and needy people in about 65 nations, and had received very little public attention. The prize brought much-needed recognition," he told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

On the other hand, seven years after the prize went to Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, major governments have yet to sign an international ban on anti-personnel mines.

The prize was created by Alfred Nobel, the Swede who invented dynamite, to honor those encouraging peace talks, disarmament and better relations between nations. Over the years, the committee has added human rights and democracy.

Along with fame comes wealth, since the prize includes a cash award now worth $1.3 million.

The committee, which is appointed by but does not answer to Norway's parliament, seldom gives up, as the South African example shows.

The 1960 award to Albert Luthuli, president of the African National Congress, was a slap at white supremacy. In 1984 the prize went to Bishop Desmond Tutu, and finally, in 1993, to ANC leader Nelson Mandela and F.W de Klerk, the man whom Mandela would replace as president in May 1994.

"South Africa was a good outcome," said Lundestad. "But we can't say it was because of the peace prize because it was just one of many factors."

The Middle East also looms large and tragic on the prize list.

Ralphe Bunche, the American U.N. diplomat, won it in 1950 for negotiating the armistice that ended the first Arab-Israeli war. Four more full-scale wars followed. The 1978 prize honored peace Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for making peace. Four years later, Begin ordered an invasion of Lebanon, and in 1981 Islamic extremists assassinated Sadat.

There were also great hopes in 1994, when the prize went to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for their groundbreaking peace accord. Rabin was murdered by an Israeli ultra-nationalist in 1995, peace efforts collapsed in 2000 and the conflict has since claimed thousands more lives.

Sometimes the prize works as protection. It may have prevented the military regime in Myanmar, formerly Burma, from simply eliminating Suu Kyi.

"Sure, you could just say 'OK, she's still under house arrest'," said Dan Smith, a London-based peace researcher and activist. "... but it put the strong spotlight on Burma."