Joshua E. Keating -- 2009's most important stories you didn't hear about

A GAO investigation found security flaws in the issuance of passports.
A GAO investigation found security flaws in the issuance of passports. (Thanassis Stavrakis/associated Press)
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By Joshua E. Keating
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sometimes it's those news stories that don't feel the love from cable talk shows or the blogosphere that reveal the most about what really happened in a given year. 2009 had plenty of them. From a naval alliance that could shift the balance of power on two continents to the risk of another housing bubble, these are the stories that got less attention they deserved this year -- but could dominate the conversation in 2010.

The Northeast Passage opens for business

The mythic Northwest Passage still captures the imagination, but in September, two German vessels made history by becoming the first commercial ships to travel from East Asia to Western Europe via the Northeast Passage from Russia through the Arctic. Ice previously made the route impassable, but thanks to rising global temperatures, it's now a cakewalk. "There was virtually no ice on most of the route," Captain Valeriy Durov told the BBC. "Twenty years ago, when I worked in the eastern part of the Arctic, I couldn't even imagine something like this."

The significance depends on your perspective. The passage could be a gold mine for the commercial shipping industry, as a shorter and cheaper route from Asia to Europe. But the news is also a sign that climate change may be reaching a dangerous tipping point.

In addition, the thaw opens possibilities for geopolitical competition. Russia has literally planted its flag beneath the Arctic ice, staking a claim to newly accessible natural resources, much to the consternation of the other northern states. The route will also benefit Russia by bringing new business to its eastern ports. With the scramble for the Arctic's riches heating up, even peaceful Canada has been holding military training exercises in the area.

Iraq's new flash point

With attention riveted on President Obama's review of Afghanistan strategy, almost any news from Baghdad got short shrift this year. But the Iraq war is far from over. From a persistent insurgency to a distressing lack of political reconciliation in Baghdad, Iraq has any number of potential flash points. Most troubling may be the growing fears of a new conflict between Iraq's Arab and Kurdish populations.

The attention this subject has gotten has focused on the Kurdish claims to oil-rich Kirkuk, but analysts say developments in nearby Nineveh province might be more dangerous. The area is south of the Kurdish border but contains a large Kurdish population eager to incorporate the territory into Kurdistan. After the U.S. invasion, the Kurds became politically dominant in Nineveh and stationed pesh merga militia troops there.

That changed in January, when Sunnis rallied around the hard-line Arab nationalist party al-Hadba-a -- which campaigned on a platform of countering Kurdish influence -- and handed it a narrow majority in Nineveh's provincial elections. The Kurdish Fraternal List, the region's main Kurdish party, walked out of the provincial council, vowing not to return unless it was given several senior leadership positions.

With both sides threatening violence to resolve the dispute and insurgent attacks continuing, Iraqi and U.S. authorities increasingly view Nineveh's conflict as a key threat to Iraq's stability. "Without a compromise deal, [Nineveh] risks dragging the country as a whole on a downward slope," Loulouwa al-Rachid, the International Crisis Group's senior Iraq analyst, said in September.

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