IRAQ Voters entered a final lap in a triple round of elections this year-choosing a parliamentary government to serve four years under a constitution approved in October. If violence did not deter most Iraqis from the polls, it halted key candidates from office. Assassins gunned down Sunni political honcho Mizhar al-Dulaimi on Dec. 13 as he campaigned for office in Ramadi. He became one in a line of pro-democracy Sunnis killed in the runup to elections. Unidentified gunmen shot Sheik Hamza Abbas in Fallujah, where he once brokered a truce with U.S. forces and had been critical of the Sunni-led insurgency.
Voting began in select prisons and hospitals Dec. 12 and opened to Iraqis living overseas Dec. 13, just as Iraq's borders were sealed and a curfew imposed as security measures ahead of polls opening Dec. 15.
WHITE HOUSE On the eve of Iraq's elections, President George W. Bush completed a series of four major speeches defending his decision to go to war in Iraq. "We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator," he said in Washington, but he admitted that "much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong." At a question-and-answer session following a Dec. 12 speech in Philadelphia, Mr. Bush estimated that 30,000 Iraqis had been killed in the war-a figure above even what some anti-war groups estimate.
IRAN Iraqi border guards seized a truck loaded with completed, forged ballots as it tried to cross into Iraq. According to the truck's Iranian driver, the vehicle was one of three sent into Iraq ahead of nationwide elections. Iran favors one of two leading Shiite parties, which have expressed support for forms of Islamic law in Iraq. "Iraq is in a particularly difficult neighborhood," said U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. "There are predatory states, the hegemonic states, with aspirations of regional hegemony in the area, such as Iran. There are states that fear success of democracy here-that it might be infectious and spread."
In a speech broadcast nationwide on Dec. 14, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that the Holocaust was a myth. "They have fabricated a legend under the name 'Massacre of the Jews,' and they hold it higher than God himself," he told a crowd in the southeastern city of Zahedan-comments that drew a rebuke from the UN Security Council even as it negotiates with the Iranian leader over nuclear weapons buildup.
LEBANON Pro-democracy and anti-Syrian journalist Gebran Tueni was assassinated in Beirut on Dec. 12. He was the fourth Syrian opponent to be killed since a series of bombings began Feb. 14 with the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. As they did after Mr. Hariri's death, thousands of mourners turned his Dec. 14 funeral into a protest of Syrian dominance in Lebanese politics. "Gebran didn't die and An-Nahar will continue," blared a headline across the Beirut daily where Mr. Tueni worked and that is edited by his father Ghassan. In June a prominent An-Nahar columnist, Samir Kassir, was killed by a car bomb.
FRANCE Counterterrorism agents carried out their largest dragnet yet in Paris, sweeping homes and internet cafés on Dec. 12 and arresting 20 suspects. Several hundred officers, heavily armed and wearing black hoods, arrested the mostly North African militants in an effort to shut down a terror network and following weeks of Muslim-led rioting in Paris suburbs.
CRIME An estimated 1,000 people descended on San Quentin state prison on Dec. 12 and 13 to protest-or support-the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. The death-row inmate, convicted of four 1979 murders, was the 12th person executed in California since the state restored capital punishment in 1978 (see "Tookie's victims"). In the weeks leading up to Williams' death date, press reports centered on his appeals for clemency and on the list of celebrities and politicians who argued that the prisoner's work to steer children away from violence made him more valuable alive than dead. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, noting that Williams never took responsibility for his crimes, refused to spare him-first publicly on Dec. 12, then again 30 minutes before the scheduled execution. Prison officials pronounced Williams dead on Dec. 13 at 12:35 a.m. He was 51.
INDONESIA Despite brutal acts of violence against Christians this year, Muslim youths affiliated with Indonesia's largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, will guard churches for Christmas festivities. Volunteers say they will collaborate with existing police operations, the churches' own security, and youths from other religions.
ECONOMY The Federal Reserve on Dec. 13 raised the federal funds rate for the 13th time since June 2004, adding to a steady increase that has brought the rate from a 46-year low of 1 percent to 4.25 percent. But the Fed indicated in a public statement that the tightening trend may end soon. By pushing rates higher, the Fed hoped to stave off inflation, and the higher rates will increase both returns on savings and the costs of borrowing. Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services in Boston, predicted that at least one more interest-rate hike is on the way: "At this point I am guessing that the Fed is pretty committed to raising rates in January, but after that all bets are off."
MOVIES The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe exceeded industry guesstimates of its opening box-office take, drawing $67 million its first weekend out but falling well short of the record-setting opening for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ($102 million). And while critics blasted Disney for allowing conservatives to finance the Narnia movie and market it to Christian groups, not one is blinking at the overt anti-American agenda-and liberal activist financing- behind George Clooney's Syriana (see "Movie review").