Top 10 International Stories for 2006

As 2006 comes to a close, takes a look at the top 10 international stories of the year.

Among the stories that captivated the world were the war in Iraq; Iran's defiance in the face of opposition to its nuclear program; North Korea's test of a nuclear device; Saddam Hussein's death sentence for crimes against humanity; and illnesses that forced both Ariel Sharon in Israel and Fidel Castro in Cuba to cede power.

Here are the stories of the year, counting down to the top story of 2006.

10. Prophet Muhammad Cartoons

Muslims across the globe rose up in anger when cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in humorous or satirical situations were republished in Europe.

The 12 cartoons were originally published in 2005 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, accompanied by an editorial criticizing self-censorship after writer Kare Bluitgen complained that he was unable to find an illustrator for his children's book about the Prophet.

But the Muslim world didn't really react until the images were republished in Austria in January and then at the beginning of February in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Danish embassies were attacked in Tehran and Damascus. Denmark's embassy in Beirut was burned and looted.

In Iraq, an insurgent group calling itself the military wing of the Army of the Right handed out leaflets during a demonstration, saying it would attack Danish and non-Muslim targets.

In Bangladesh, 10,000 people turned out for a protest in the capital.

Crowds protesting the cartoons attacked peacekeepers in Afghanistan. Three demonstrators died as they tried to storm a Norwegian-led peacekeeping base.

The violence and anger over the cartoons eventually subsided, but months later, Muslims again took to the streets in protest over a perceived insult from the West.

In a speech in Germany on Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI quoted a medieval text that characterized some teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman."

The Pope later said he sincerely regretted that Muslims were offended.

9. The Poisoned Ex-Spy

A long, winding story involving murder, intrigue and international espionage gripped the world in November when onetime KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital from poisoning by polonium-210, a highly radioactive substance.

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As he lay dying, Litvinenko said Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the poisoning. The Kremlin dismissed the allegations as absurd.

Investigators soon focused on a Nov. 1 meeting Litvinenko had with two Russian men — one a former KGB spy himself — at a London hotel. Also on that day, Litvinenko met another contact at a sushi bar.

Just hours after his meetings, Litvinenko began to complain of feeling sick. He spent the night vomiting. Three days later, he was admitted to a London hospital, where he died.

British police ruled the death a homicide and the investigation widened. Traces of radiation have been found in several places in London — including the bar at the Millenium Hotel where Litvinenko held his Nov. 1 meeting.

The British Health Agency said 10 people tested positive for radiation from polonium-210, including Litvinenko's wife.

High radiation levels were detected at the British Embassy in Moscow and in Germany, where police believe the source was Dmitry Kovtun, a contact of Litvinenko who reportedly had traces of the same radiation himself.

8. Venezuela's Chavez Insults Bush

In a scathing and heated speech addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called President Bush "the devil" and said the United States would soon lose its spot at the head of the international table.

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Met with resounding applause, Chavez also slammed the United Nations, calling it a "deceased" organization, and he recommended that people read Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which theorizes another global superpower could challenge the U.S. The reference pushed the 2003 release to the top of several best-selling lists.

The next day, as Chavez kicked off a campaign to promote a program that offers discounted oil to poor families in Harlem, N.Y., and across the U.S., he repeated the comment, sparking even the United States’ most liberal politicians to speak out against him.

Chavez easily won victory in his Dec. 4 elections at home and vowed to continue to challenge the United States’ presence in Latin America.

7. Global War on Terror

The global war on terror remained a priority in 2006 for governments in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

Intelligence organizations targeted the leaders of Al Qaeda and other terror groups as they fought to stay ahead of the next terrorist attack.

British officials struck it big when they discovered a plot to blow up planes in flight from the U.K. to the U.S. A plan to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" had been disrupted, Scotland Yard said.

The plot, which was said to involve a connection to Pakistan and possibly the leadership of Al Qaeda, was for homicide bombers to smuggle explosives on board as many as 10 aircraft in hand luggage. Three U.S. airlines were believed to have been targeted.

Pakistan remained in the spotlight as a possible hiding place for the Al Qaeda leadership, and Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was targeted in at least one attack there.

On Jan. 13 missiles from a U.S. drone slammed into houses in the village of Damadola Burkanday, where Zawahiri was thought to be having dinner. But he was not among those killed in the attack.

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An attack on a religious school in the village of Chingai on Oct. 30 allegedly involved at least one missile fired from a U.S. drone. Intelligence sources said Zawahiri had been seen at the school days before the attack, which left up to 80 people dead.

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In Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO forces battled a resurgent Taliban. U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that activity in the south and eastern area of the country by Taliban and Al Qaeda elements has doubled since 2005.

On Oct. 5, NATO assumed control of security for Afghanistan with about 33,000 troops under its command. Roughly 12,000 U.S. troops fell under the NATO mission, while approximately 8,000 U.S. forces remained as a separate force to conduct counterterrorism operations.

6. Israel's Invasion of Lebanon

Hezbollah staged an incursion on July 12 over the Lebanese border and killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, prompting Israel to wage a full-blown war against the terrorist group.

The Israelis carried out a major ground assault on Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon, along with air assaults on the terror group's command centers in Beirut and the country's infrastructure.

Hezbollah responded by launching missiles across the border into Israel.

In the month-long fight — a cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 14 — northern Israel was hammered by 3,790 rockets launched from militant strongholds in southern Lebanon, more than 900 of them in towns and cities along Israel's northern coast including Nahariya and Haifa.

Israel officials said 43 Israeli civilians and 117 IDF soldiers were killed in the fighting.

In southern Lebanon, the fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants was devastating.

According to Lebanese officials, most of the people killed in the war — estimated at up to 1,300 — were civilians, and the fighting caused nearly $2.5 billion in damage to roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Officials also say that nearly a quarter of Lebanon's population had been forced out of their homes due to the fighting, which officials say caused more losses to housing and small businesses than during the entirety of Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

When the war against Lebanon began, Israeli forces were already engaged in a long battle with Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Israeli troops invaded in force almost a year after staging a complete withdrawal from Gaza after a June 25 attack on a military post by Palestinian militants left two Israeli soldiers dead and a third kidnapped.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decisions to go to war in Lebanon and invade Gaza followed the hardline policies set by his predecessor Ariel Sharon, who suffered a severe stroke on Jan. 4 and remains incapacitated following brain surgery.

The fate of the Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah and Palestinian militants remains unknown.

5. Castro's Illness

In a letter read on Cuba's state-run TV on Aug. 1, longtime communist dictator Fidel Castro swore his health was in stable condition, despite undergoing surgery to relieve bleeding in his intestines and giving his ruling power to his younger brother Raul.

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Although he hasn’t appeared in public since July 26, the state continues to say Castro is in good health and will return to power.

A video released two weeks after the surgery showed Castro, looking tired and pale, joking with his brother. Hugo Chavez said Castro was "walking, singing" after meeting with him before the Nonaligned Movement summit in September. And Castro didn’t appear at a parade in honor of his 80th birthday on Dec. 2.

Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage had previously dismissed reports that Castro was suffering from stomach cancer, but officials had not publicly denied rumors that he could have another type of cancer.

Raul Castro has appeared increasingly confident in his new role, asserting himself by twice calling for normalized relations and improved dialogue with the United States. As rumors swirl about varying states of Castro’s condition, one thing is clear: His brother remains in power.

4. North Korea's Nuke Test

In a move seen as a slap in the face of the international community, North Korea on Oct. 9 said it completed its first-ever nuclear test, prompting President Bush to declare it a "provocative act."

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Leaders around the world condemned the test by the country that had been boycotting nuclear talks for 11 months, angry that the U.S. blacklisted a Macau bank where Pyongyang deposited some $24 million.

Kim Jong-Il’s second in command threatened more tests could occur soon if the U.S. "continues to take a hostile attitude and apply pressure." The United Nations swiftly smacked North Korea with sanctions for the testing on Oct. 15.

The underground test came only three months after North Korea tested several long-range missiles, one of which the country said was powerful enough to reach the United States.

By the year’s end, talks among North Korea and five other nations — South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan — had resumed, but financial restrictions by the U.S. on North Korea still appeared to be a sticking point.

North Korea is believed to have enough radioactive material to make about a half-dozen atomic bombs, and its main nuclear reactor remains in operation to create more weapons-grade plutonium.

3. Iran's Defiance

Iran's nuclear program took center stage in 2006 as Tehran insisted nothing would stop it from obtaining nuclear energy.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said time and time again that his nation has a right to develop a "peaceful nuclear energy" program, but many nations fear that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, which could drastically alter the political landscape in an already volatile region.

In January, Iran resumed research in uranium enrichment at its plant at Natanz, as well as other facilities around the country.

In April, Ahmadinejad announced that his country had "joined the club of nuclear countries."

"At this historic moment, with the blessings of God Almighty and the efforts made by our scientists, I declare here that the laboratory-scale nuclear fuel cycle has been completed and young scientists produced enriched uranium needed to the degree for nuclear power plants Sunday," Ahmadinejad said.

In May, Ahmadinejad responded to international critics of Iran's nuclear program, calling concern by Western nations "a big lie."

"I'll tell you, they are not concerned with nuclear programs...They are themselves engaged in nuclear activities and they are expanding day by day. They test new brands of weapons of mass destruction every day," said Ahmadinejad.

In June, the European Union presented a proposal from the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany that would offer Iran new civilian aircraft and light-water reactors incapable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material if Iran stops its uranium enrichment and reprocessing program.

In July, the United Nations Security Council approved, by a vote of 14-1, a resolution insisting that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activities by August 31 or face the possibility of diplomatic and economic sanctions. The resolution was the council's first legally binding order for Iran to halt the enrichment process.

But the U.N.'s August deadline passed with Ahmadinejad vowing that Iran will "never renounce peaceful nuclear energy." The International Atomic Energy Agency later reported that Iran has not stopped enriching uranium, and in November it reported that traces of plutonium had been found at an Iranian nuclear waste facility.

On Dec. 23, the U.N. Security Council finally came to an agreement on a resolution ordering all countries to stop supplying Iran with materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear and missile programs. It also froze Iranian assets of 10 key companies and 12 individuals related to those programs.

2. Saddam Hussein Executed

Three years and six months after President Bush waged war on Iraq’s dictator, claiming he was developing weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging just before the year's end after being sentenced to death by hanging for his role in the killing of 148 people in the town of Dujail.

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On Nov. 5 Saddam was found guilty of murder, forced deportation and torture for his role in the massacre. Besides the death sentence, he also received two 10-year terms in prison.

Saddam, whose laywers were not able to win an appeal for the decision, had claimed the town was involved in an assassination attempt on him in 1982.

The deposed dictator also faced genocide charges for his role in Operation Anfal — a campaign against the Kurdish population that, according to Human Rights Watch , left 180,000 dead and 2,000 villages destroyed.

And in the early hours of Dec. 30 in Iraq, the man convicted of killing 148 others faced his own death as he was executed by hanging. Defiant until the end, Saddam initally scuffled with guards and refused to wear the traditional hood worn during hangings. Click here to watch his final moments.

1. War in Iraq

With a new constitution and an elected parliament in place, hopes ran high at the beginning of 2006 that the year would mark a turning point in the U.S. campaign to build a stable democracy in Iraq.

U.S. officials even spoke of reducing U.S. troop strength in the country below 100,000 by the end of 2006.

Those hopes took a blow after Feb. 22, when Sunni Arab extremists blew up a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra, a Sunni city north of Baghdad. That brazen attack outraged the country's long-suffering Shiite majority and triggered a wave of sectarian reprisal killings that sabotaged American efforts to promote trust among Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish politicians.

Although an Iraqi government was seated three months later, sectarian bitterness was so deep that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was seen as unable to forge an effective administration.

In Anbar province, Sunni Arab insurgents ambushed American and Iraqi forces almost daily. By December the American death count since the war began was nearing 3,000.

Sectarian violence raged in Baghdad and religiously mixed areas, carried out by shadowy militias and death squads believed linked to Shiite and Sunni politicians and clerics. Al-Maliki did little to curb the militias, some of which were linked to his fellow Shiite allies.

Now, despite many successes that included the June 7 killing of the regional Al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, 2006 is ending with America reconsidering its strategy.

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The administration began looking for new approaches following the release on Dec. 6 of a report by a bipartisan commission led by longtime Bush family friend James Baker that described the situation as "grave and deteriorating" and warned that America's ability to influence events was "diminishing."

Among the recommendations of the Baker commission were: more regional diplomacy, shifting the U.S. military role from combat to training, and pressing the Iraqi factions to compromise on the nation's future.

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