10 stories that rocked the world in 2006

by Jordan Green

Two thousand and six was the year that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and increasing violence in Iraq drove President Bush’s ratings steadily downward until the bottom fell out of his agenda, resulting in a Democratic sweep in the mid-term elections, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s departure, and a critical assessment of the war from an elder political ally and the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, James A. Baker, in the space of a month.

Here are 10 national and world stories that strongly resonated through the Piedmont Triad and North Carolina:

1. Democrats win both houses of Congress

Democratic candidates swept the mid-term elections, knocking off incumbent Republicans, and winning both houses of Congress, although the Republicans might end up retaining control of the Senate should death or physical incapacitation force South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson to cede his seat to a Republican appointee. (The result would be a 50-50 balance between the two parties in the upper house, giving Vice President Dick Cheney the tie-breaking vote.)

The Democratic challengers sent 28 Republicans home, including Rep. Anne Northrup of Kentucky, who was displaced by alternative weekly founder John Yarmouth, and western North Carolina congressman Charles Taylor, who lost his seat to former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler. In Senate races, Democrats picked up seats in Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Montana, Missouri and Rhode Island, but fell short of victory in Tennessee.

With the political landscape rearranged and open primary contests anticipated for both parties, contenders for the presidency in 2008 seemed to start campaigning almost as soon as the returns came in from the mid-terms.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich have already declared their candidacies on the Democratic side of the ledger while Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner decided to fold early, leaving New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama considered likely contenders.

On the Republican side of the ledger, California Rep. Duncan Hunter has declared his candidacy, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has opted out, and Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani are considered likely prospects.

2. Iraq Study Group calls for Middle East diplomacy

In early December the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel, released its report concluding, “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating” with “no path that can guarantee success.” Resisting the temptation to back a withdrawal of US troops, the study group instead recommended shifting resources from direct combat to training Iraqi forces, and launching an aggressive diplomatic effort to engage Iraq’s neighbors Iran and Syria.

Despite the fact that co-chair James A. Baker helped Bush lawyer the outcome of the deadlocked 2000 presidential contest in Florida and served as secretary of state for the president’s father, and despite the fact that one member – former CIA director Robert M. Gates – was appointed to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, the president’s response to the group’s recommendations has so far been cool.

“79 percent of Americans agree with our recommendation of shifting troops from combat to support,” co-chair Lee Hamilton wrote in a Dec. 18 opinion piece in the Indianapolis Star. “74 percent support making aid for the Iraqi government conditional on their performance; and nearly 60 percent support engagement with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, the report is at the top of the bestseller list and has been downloaded thousands of times. While the president and Congress take their time to weigh options, Americans are educating themselves and drawing their own conclusions.”

3. Civil war erupts in Iraq

Anticipation for the findings of the Iraq Study Group grew partly because of the approaching mid-term elections, but mainly because sectarian warfare spiraled into civil war in Iraq. (Indeed, the study group found that “sectarian struggle is the principal challenge to stability.”)

Even as US combat deaths crept up towards the 3,000 mark near the end of the year, daily life for ordinary Iraqis became increasingly treacherous as Shiite death squads carried out murderous killings in response to the Sunni insurgency. A major cause of antagonism was the February bombing of the Shiite Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra.

As early as November 2005, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported the existence of the death squads and drew attention to links with the Shiite-led Iraqi government. After the destruction of Al-Askari, sectarian killings exploded. By August, the Washington Post would report Shiites entering public hospitals, abducting Sunni patients and murdering them. Other grisly methods of death reported: riddling bodies with bullets and dumping them in the streets for public display, and dousing victims with kerosene and setting them on fire.

4. A dozen miners killed in Sago disaster

An explosion ripped through International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in West Virginia’s Upshur County on the morning of Jan. 2, killing one man instantly and trapping a dozen others underground. Forty-one hours later, all but one would perish.

“The staggering tragedy of the Sago Mine disaster – first the loss of the miners, then the appalling miscommunication to their families -‘ shocked West Virginia and the nation,” a report to Gov. Joe Manchin from consultant Davitt McAteer noted. His somewhat contradictory report found that the rescue failures should be attributed to “systems” rather than “individual human beings,” but stopped short of calling for increased mine safety regulation or finding International Coal Group, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration or the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training specifically responsible for the deaths.

Information leaked in early December from a forthcoming official report on the disaster indicates that the explosion was caused by a lightning strike, according to widespread news reports. The state reportedly postponed release of the report to honor the wishes of family members angered that the mine’s owners were not found more accountable.

5. Pity the nations: Lebanon and Palestine on the brink

Palestinian militants abducted an Israeli soldier on June 25 in a cross-border raid, offering to free him in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli detention facilities. Israel responded by carrying out air strikes against Palestinian targets. The renewed hostilities reflected the dormant status of the Roadmap to Peace proposed by President Bush in 2003.

A similar exchange in the following weeks between Hezbollah militants and the Israeli military bore deadlier fruit: full-scale war in Lebanon and parts of northern Israel. The hostilities began when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers. Israel responded by launching air strikes in Lebanon, hitting an apartment building in Qana and the Beirut airport, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervened to halt international efforts to broker a ceasefire (yes, you read that right).

The outcome, by most accounts, was a draw, with Hezbollah gaining additional support from the Lebanese people because of its military sacrifices and aid to the war refugees. But in both Lebanon and Palestine, internal politics have brought the two countries to the verge of crisis. Anti-Syrian politician Pierre Gemayel was assassinated in November, and the next month supporters of Hezbollah, which enjoys the backing of Syria, launched massive demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

And in Palestine, tensions between the Islamist Hamas party, which holds the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, and Fatah, the secular party of President Mahmoud Abbas, have led to street fighting and the threat of civil war.

6. Duke lacrosse case highlights race and class tensions in Durham

A black NC Central student who is a single mother alleged that she was raped by members of the Duke University lacrosse team at a party held on March 13 at the home of one of the team members. Around the time of the alleged incident, an upset female called 911, reporting that while driving past 610 N. Buchanan Blvd., the location of the party, a Duke student shouted the word “nigger.” The allegation immediately cast the rape accusation into the long-simmering discourse of racial privilege and oppression in a Southern city with stark income inequality that is the home of a prestigious and affluent private university -‘ with a twist: many of the privileged lacrosse players are from the Northeast.

Three players were indicted, but contradictory behavior by witnesses, law enforcement personnel and the alleged victim herself, as well as tests showing that none of the accused players’ DNA was found on or in the woman’s body have cast doubt on District Attorney Mike Nifong’s case.

District Attorney Mike Nifong dismissed rape charges against all three of the accused on Dec. 22. Charges of kidnapping and sex offense remain pending against the defendants.

7. Congress affirms torture and habeas corpus suspension

When President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act into law on Oct. 17 the White House released a public set of talking points noting that the president had made it clear that his primary criteria for supporting any legislation put forward by Congress had been whether it allowed the CIA to continue running secret detention centers where suspected terrorists could be subjected to aggressive interrogation tactics.

Bush called the new law “one of the most important pieces of legislation in the war on terror,” and declared it would allow the CIA “to continue its program for questioning key terrorist leaders and operatives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man believed to be the mastermind of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on our country.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch took a less charitable view, contending the law defines “‘unlawful enemy combatants’ in a dangerously broad manner” and “limits protections against detainee mistreatment.” UN special rapporteur on human rights Martin Scheinin largely concurred, stating that in contradiction to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Military Commissions Act denies non-US citizens “in US custody the right to challenge the legality of their detention by filing habeas corpus,” adding that “another concern is the denial of the right to see exculpatory evidence if it is deemed classified information, which severely impedes the right to a fair trial.”

8. Immigration rallies sweep the nation

Alarmed at proposed US House legislation that would make it a criminal offense to live in the United States without proper documentation, mass demonstrations of people of mostly Hispanic lineage broke out in major cities like Los Angeles and Dallas, as well as North Carolina towns like Siler City in April. A rally at Greensboro’s Governmental Plaza for a May 1 “day without immigrants” drew an estimated crowd of 1,500.

A backlash visited Greensboro 10 days later when Minuteman Project cofounder Jim Gilchrist brought a caravan of activists to High Point Road to demonstrate their opposition to illegal immigration. His appearance prompted a shouting match between his supporters and left-wing protesters.

Months later Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes expressed support for the aims of a proposed Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to a reporter from National Public Radio, and later told YES! Weekly that he fears that if the sheriff’s office does not sign on with a federal program that would allow deputies to enforce immigration law “those illegal aliens will start using this county as a safe haven.”

The volatile issue is far from settled, but on Election Day voters in North Carolina’s 13th congressional district rejected Republican US House candidate Vernon Robinson, who campaigned heavily on the issue of illegal immigration.

9. Smithfield employees walk out as union demands recognition

Mostly Hispanic employees walked off the job en masse at Smithfield Foods’ plant in Tar Heel, NC on Nov. 16, protesting what Institute for Southern Studies director Chris Kromm described as “a federally-mandated check of Social Security numbers to catch undocumented employees.”

For months the United Food and Commercial Workers International Workers had been asking the company to recognize a card-check indicating that a majority of employees wished to be represented by the union. The union has lost two elections in more than a decade. Labor organizers took advantage of the walkout to step up calls for the Harris Teeter grocery chain to remove Smithfield products from its shelves.

A 2005 Human Rights Watch report that specifically reviewed conditions at the Tar Heel plant found that “meatpacking work has extraordinarily high rates of injury. Workers injured on the job may then face dismissal. Workers risk losing their jobs when they exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively in an attempt to improve working conditions. And immigrant workers – an increasing percentage of the workforce in the industry – are particularly at risk. Language difficulties often prevent them from being aware of their rights under the law and of specific hazards in their work. Immigrant workers who are undocumented, as many are, risk deportation if they seek to organize and improve conditions.”

10. Civil strife breaks out in Oaxaca

In a year when the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution saw its candidate narrowly lose the presidential election in Mexico, a broad coalition of militant leftists asserted power in the southern state of Oaxaca, with university students and Indian rights groups joining forces with a teachers union strike. Sustained street protests by the leftist activists picked up momentum in May and featured calls for the resignation of Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who was accused by his critics of corruption and thuggery.

Over the year several people have been killed in the unrest, including 36-year-old US journalist and cameraman Bradley Will, who worked for the activist organization Indymedia. Will was reportedly shot in the stomach on Oct. 27 during the general timeframe that federal police poured into the state capital to reclaim control. His colleagues, including Greensboro native Brandon Jourdan, point to a paramilitary gunman aligned with the government as the likely culprit.

Opposition leader Flavio Sosa was arrested in early December, and federal police reportedly withdrew from the central square of the of Oaxaca city on Dec. 16. The Oaxaca Solidarity Network and other human rights groups have alleged indiscriminate violence, arbitrary detention and disappearance of prisoners by the federal authorities.

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