Hopes for democracy are on the rise in Iraq and throughout the Mideast and Africa. Extremists' attacks will remain a threat, as will the spread of nuclear arms. Oil prices and the ascent of China and India will affect the world's economies. There's little likelihood of a quick end to ethnic fighting that has left...

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Hopes for democracy are on the rise in Iraq and throughout the Mideast and Africa.

Extremists’ attacks will remain a threat, as will the spread of nuclear arms.

Oil prices and the ascent of China and India will affect the world’s economies.

There’s little likelihood of a quick end to ethnic fighting that has left Sudan’s Darfur region a humanitarian disaster.

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Here are some Associated Press foreign correspondents’ assessments:

Iraq

3 elections scheduled in face of insurgency

Iraq heads into the new year with plans to usher in a new, democratic society as the interim government battles to contain an insurgency that has made a mockery of some of Washington’s hopes to transform the country.

Starting Jan. 30, Iraq is scheduled to hold three elections in 2005: for a new parliament, followed by a referendum on a new constitution and — if the charter is approved — a third ballot for a fully democratic leadership by year’s end.

That’s a tall order for a nation that languished for decades under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and where large areas are virtual no-go zones for Westerners, government officials and Iraq’s own security forces.

If elections do take place, they are expected to transfer power to Shiite Muslims, some 60 percent of Iraq’s nearly 26 million people. That would spell the end of Sunni domination that predates the establishment of the modern Iraqi state after World War I.

It will take considerable political skill for the power shift to avoid enflaming sectarian and ethnic passions among Iraq’s angry Sunni Arabs and its separatist-minded Kurds. Sunnis form the core of the insurgency, and rebel ranks are likely to swell if they feel marginalized.

This time last year, American planners were hoping to transform the U.S. military presence into a lighter, more mobile force as Iraqis assumed greater security responsibility. Instead, in an effort to bolster security before the Jan. 30 election, Washington is expanding its military force by 12,000 soldiers to the highest level since the war began in March 2003.


— Robert H. Reid

Middle East

Arafat’s passing could signal a breakthrough

GETTY IMAGES

Palestinian interim leader Mahmoud Abbas stands in front of a poster of the late Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat and Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock during a ceremony in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

JERUSALEM — The death of Yasser Arafat, Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and fatigue on both sides after four years of bloodshed could make 2005 a breakthrough year for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Arafat’s passing removed the man Israel and the United States called the main obstacle to negotiations. Palestinians elect a new president Jan. 9, and the front-runner, Mahmoud Abbas, is a moderate who is urging an end to violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated a willingness to talk to the new Palestinian leadership and perhaps coordinate his pullouts from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements.

The controversial separation barrier Israel is erecting between itself and the Palestinian territories will likely be completed in the coming year, redrawing the political and geographical boundaries of the Mideast conflict.

Violence and intransigence, however, could torpedo the new optimism. Militant Palestinian groups that oppose Israel’s existence have refused to halt attacks, though suicide bombings inside Israel have dropped sharply.

Arab countries will likely seek to capitalize on the new momentum for peace. Most are under U.S. pressure to reform their authoritarian regimes, and will continue to add democratic trappings that do not threaten the positions of kings, emirs and presidents.

Saudi Arabia plans its first municipal elections since the 1960s in February, giving Saudis — but only Saudi men — a say in local politics.

Iran chooses a new president in May as international scrutiny of its nuclear program grows. President Mohamed Khatami, who disappointed young reformers by failing to wrest control from hard-liners, will not be a candidate.


— Steven Gutkin

Asia

N. Korea’s nuclear goals remain a wild card

SEOUL, South Korea — The deadlock in negotiations to persuade North Korea to halt its quest to become a nuclear power will keep Asia’s attention in 2005.

AHN YOUNG-JOON / AP

Protesters in Seoul, South Korea, carry a mock missile with defaced posters of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a Dec. 9 rally opposing North’s nuclear program.

South Korea — along with China, Japan, Russia and the United States — is trying to coax the reclusive Pyongyang regime back to the bargaining table early in the year after it refused to attend a September meeting. The North insists Washington give up its “hostile” policy before it starts talking, and experts fear the country already has a handful of atomic weapons.

There are worries North Korea could spread nuclear weapons to terrorists, another key concern in the region, with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden still believed to be hiding in the rugged frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines is pushing military operations to flush out al-Qaida-allied militants in the Muslim south, and Indonesia still pursues extremists in the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. A growing Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated south may dent Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s otherwise strong grip on power at parliamentary elections in February.

Afghanistan continues on its path to democracy, with parliamentary elections set for the summer to follow October’s successful presidential vote that saw Hamid Karzai become the country’s first popularly elected leader. The vote is potentially treacherous, with the country’s various factions vying for power and disarmament going slowly.

Earthly concerns aren’t all on Asia’s mind. China plans to launch its second manned space mission in 2005, sending two astronauts into orbit for as long as a week.


— Burt Herman

Africa

Simmering tensions challenge accords

DAKAR, Senegal — 2005 will put peace deals to the test in Africa’s longest and deadliest wars, setting tension-raising deadlines for enemies from Congo to Sudan to follow through on hard-won pledges for sharing power.

KAREL PRINSLOO / AP

A Sudanese refugee cries upon reaching Bahai on the Chad border, after fleeing political violence in Darfur, Sudan, in July.

After international intervention stopped the fighting, peace accords mandate elections to choose new governments in Africa’s third-largest nation, Congo, where a 1998-2002 war killed millions; in a linked conflict in neighboring Burundi; in Ivory Coast; and in Liberia, finally freed of a Cold War-era charismatic leader who fueled West Africa’s wars for nearly 15 years.

In Sudan, southern rebels are to gain posts in the Arab-dominated central government in 2005, under an accord to end a 21-year war in Africa’s biggest nation. The latest in a series of all-but-ignored accords will be tested in a separate conflict in western Sudan’s Darfur region amid reports of genocide. In southern Africa, parliamentary races in March will be Zimbabwe’s first major elections since 2002, when President Robert Mugabe won re-election in a deeply flawed, widely disputed race that has been followed by political and economic turmoil.

Efforts continue in South Africa to get as many people as possible on AIDS drugs, after years of foot-dragging by the government.

Africa’s offshore oil boom — part of a worldwide scramble for alternatives to Middle East oil — stands to boom on.


— Ellen Knickmeyer

Europe

Continuity expected, with an eye on Ukraine

LONDON — The Iraq war didn’t hurt George W. Bush’s re-election chances in 2004, and it’s unlikely to sideline his staunchest ally in Europe, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair, who has suffered a fall in opinion-poll ratings and a rift with key European allies over his strong support for the war, is nonetheless likely to benefit from feeble domestic opposition if, as expected, he calls parliamentary elections for May.

If Blair wins, that would reinforce continuity in the key governments in the European Union: Blair took office in 1997, Jacques Chirac was elected president of France in 1995, and Gerhard Schroeder has headed Germany’s government since 1998.

The regional election with the most important fallout, however, is likely to be the rerun of Ukraine’s presidential vote.

The EU moved right up to Ukraine’s border last year when it added 10 former communist states to its membership. That makes the EU the obvious destination for refugees if Ukraine’s political crisis isn’t solved amicably.

The first election, on Nov. 21, complicated the EU’s relations with Russia, which regards Ukraine — once part of the Soviet Union — as within its sphere of influence. President Vladimir Putin had strongly backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose victory in the disputed vote touched off weeks of street protests and a Supreme Court nullification of the results.


— Robert Barr

Russia and the CIS

Putin’s grip on power fuels tensions with West

MOSCOW — Russia begins 2005 with its regional influence diminished by its missteps in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics and its economic growth slowing after five years of an oil-fueled boom.

Tensions with the West are expected to persist as President Vladimir Putin implements his political centralization plans, widely perceived abroad as a blow to democracy. Russian troops remain bogged down in Chechnya, where the second war in a decade has entered its fifth year.

In the southern Caucasus, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is to start shipping oil to the Mediterranean from the Caspian Sea, which is thought to contain the world’s third-largest oil and gas reserves. The pipeline is seen as a way to lessen Western dependence on Middle East oil and reduce Russia’s dominance of pipeline routes out of the former Soviet Union.

Central Asia should see the departure of the first of the region’s Soviet-era leaders when Kyrgyzstan chooses a president in October. But doubts remain whether the incumbent, Askar Akayev, will keep his promise to step down and whether the divided opposition can mount a united challenge.

Radical Islamic groups remain active in Uzbekistan, fueled by harsh persecution of dissident Muslims and worsening living conditions.


— Judith Ingram

Latin America

Workers grow restive over free-trade effects

MEXICO CITY — From the coca fields of Bolivia to the concrete jungles of Mexico City, Latin Americans remain frustrated by the prospect of greater competition under growing free-trade deals, and many are rebelling against U.S. policies.

In Mexico, where President Vicente Fox’s victory four years ago was hailed as the start of the country’s true democracy, voters also are fed up with feuding political parties and scandals.

As a result, leftist Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, famous for his handout programs and big public-works projects, is leading most polls as the front-runner for the 2006 presidential race. Campaigning for the race begins in earnest in the new year.

In Brazil, voters who expected radical change from President Inácio Lula da Silva, a former union boss and leftist leader, have instead received cautious economic policies that have sparked sometimes violent protests. Many are demanding more social programs for the poor.

Chilean municipal elections in October handed a strong victory to the center-left coalition of President Ricardo Lagos, boosting its hopes of retaining power in national elections in 2005.

Chile’s former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, meanwhile, will be fighting a judge’s latest effort to try him for human-rights violations during his 1973-90 rule.

In Colombia, hard-line President Alvaro Uribe, popular for his crackdown on rebel groups, is working to get Congress to amend the constitution so he can run for a second consecutive term in 2006.

Many countries — including all of Central America and many Andean nations — will be wrapping up free-trade agreements with the United States or be in the midst of negotiating accords in 2005.


— Traci Carl

United Nations

Pressure on Annan

may sidetrack reforms

UNITED NATIONS — After a year of escalating crises capped by calls for Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s resignation, the U.N. chief hopes 2005 will be a year of change that will enable the world body to better tackle new global security threats.

But many nations are concerned that calls by several U.S. lawmakers for Annan to step down over allegations of corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq could derail plans for a sweeping reform of the U.N.

A high-level panel recently made 101 recommendations for change, including an expanded and more active Security Council with authority to take action to prevent conflicts or potential genocide. An upcoming report will assess progress toward meeting goals adopted at the U.N. Millennium Summit in 2000, including halving the number of people living in dire poverty and ensuring an elementary-school education for all children by 2015.

Some diplomats and U.N. officials predict Annan will have a rocky road.

A lot will depend on continued U.S. support and the results of oil-for-food investigations, especially the one headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, whose first report is due in January and final report in mid-2005.


— Edith M. Lederer