Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Tsunami," Jan. 15, 2005

Tsunami response

Prospering nations agreed to band together under embattled UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to provide nearly $1 billion in cash assistance to countries hardest hit by December's Indian Ocean tsunami. The decision came after Mr. Annan told leaders gathered in Jakarta it would take that much over the next six months "to stop the tsunami from being followed by a second wave of death from preventable causes."

Nearly two weeks after the cataclysmic event, tens of thousands are still missing, and a final death toll approaches 200,000. More than 500,000 people have been injured and 3 million to 5 million have been displaced or are in need of food.

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With Iraq temporarily off the front pages of American newspapers, the tsunamis allowed the president to refocus much of the week's news: dispatching his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region; naming his two predecessors, Presidents Bush and Clinton, to head up a volunteer fundraising drive at home; and upping the U.S. contribution to $350 million.

That is below government pledges made by Australia and Japan, but does not take into account U.S. individual and corporate donations, or the ongoing U.S. military relief operation in the Indian Ocean. In 10 days following the tsunami, the American Red Cross raised more than $3 million, its largest-ever fund drive.

Officials hinted there may be further political upside ahead. Indonesia's hard-hit Aceh Province has been a hotbed of political Islam, but old animosities may cool as the region struggles to rebuild. As Mr. Powell noted, massive U.S. aid can only help America's image in Indonesia and throughout the Muslim world.

Capitol Hill

Fifty new members of Congress were sworn in on Jan. 4-then promptly began swearing at each other. Most of the jousting was on the House side, where a push by the GOP to relax ethics rules drew the ire of Democrats. In the end, Republican lawmakers bowed to the realities of public perception, weakening one rule, strengthening another, and leaving a third unchanged.

Meanwhile, the fate of ethics committee Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), a frequent critic of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, remained in doubt. Speaker Dennis Hastert was said to be mulling possible replacements, and Mr. Hefley himself told reporters that party leaders were "probably going to boot me."

Still, a relatively obscure procedural squabble in the House was nothing compared to the all-out crisis narrowly avoided by the Senate. With judicial confirmations looming, Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to change the filibuster rule that allowed Democrats to block many of the president's nominees during his first term. As work got underway, however, Mr. Frist decided to keep the "nuclear option" on hold. He promised to see how Democrats treated the first judicial nominee-due up in February-before changing the rules.

Iraq

It was a bloody beginning to the New Year in Iraq, as a series of bombings, grenade attacks, and assassinations took nearly 100 lives, including the closely guarded governor of the Baghdad region.

With Jan. 30 elections looming, Sunni insurgents targeted local forces charged with keeping the peace on Election Day. A suicide bomber killed 20 Iraqis during a police academy graduation ceremony on Jan. 5, and a second car bomb killed five policemen later the same day. Officials estimate some 1,300 Iraqi policemen have been killed in the past four months. Iraqi forces are making gains against the insurgents, arresting more than 300 last week, including at least two top cell leaders. But Iraq's intelligence chief said members of the insurgency could number 20,000, with another 200,000 sympathizers. Though the insurgents have threatened to kill any Iraqi who casts a vote on Jan. 30, top Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is mobilizing his fellow clerics for a massive get-out-the-vote effort, and the United States promised 35,000 troops would guard polling places in Baghdad alone.

Despite the mounting death toll, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi vowed the voting would proceed on schedule: "We will not allow the terrorists to stop the political process in Iraq."

Terrorism

Federal officials ended one terrorism scare involving lasers and airplanes only to announce a nationwide manhunt for a suspect they said was trying to buy large quantities of explosives.

On Jan. 4 a 38-year-old New Jersey man was charged under the Patriot Act for temporarily blinding an airplane pilot by shining a laser beam into the plane's cockpit. David Banach initially said his 7-year-old daughter was playing with the laser, then later claimed he was using it to point out stars to the little girl. The FBI ruled out terrorism as a motive, though lasers have recently hit airplanes in at least five other cities.

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