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2003 & Beyond: The Sounds And Voices Of A Year Marked By War, Assassinations, And Nuclear Fears

  • Bruce Jacobs

In the year in audio, the sounds of the war in Iraq -- its buildup, execution, and aftermath -- is certainly the news story that dominated the year 2003. But it not the only story with far-reaching impact. Iraq shared headlines with a wide range of stories, including assassinations, nuclear fears, and the threat of a global epidemic. RFE/RL looks at the sounds and voices that marked the major news events of 2003.

Prague, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the year 2003 began, the growing possibility of war with Iraq was ever-present. But fears about North Korea's nuclear program also made big news in the early days of January.

After a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governors in Vienna, IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei declared North Korea's failure to comply with its nuclear safeguard agreements: "I hope that the DPRK [North Korea] will seize this opportunity to come into compliance. I hope the DPRK will understand, as I made it clear to the board, that compliance, and not defiance, is the way to a solution to this issue."

Later in January, U.S. President George W. Bush used his annual State of the Union address to warn about the potential threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. However, one short line -- the soon-to-be infamous 16 words -- about an alleged nuclear program came back to cause him trouble later: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Months later, the White House provoked a storm of criticism when it acknowledged that President Bush's accusation had been based on forged documents. Critics said the Bush administration knew or should have known the documents were fake long before it was used in the speech.

On 1 February, President Bush addressed his nation again, but the subject was not Iraq. The U.S. space shuttle, "Columbia," broke apart and burned up on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere, killing its seven-member crew: "Our journey into space will go on. In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope."

On 14 February, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a dramatic presentation at the United Nations Security Council. His mission: To convince reluctant nations that Iraq possessed and was hiding weapons of mass destruction and in breach of Security Council resolutions.

"We haven't accounted for the anthrax [in Iraq]. We haven't accounted for the botulinum [biological agent], VX [nerve gas], bulk biological agents, growth media [for possibly growing biological agents], 30,000 chemical and biological munitions. These are not trivial matters that one can just ignore and walk away from and say, 'Well, maybe the inspectors will find them and maybe they won't,'" Powell said.

Despite intensive efforts by U.S. investigators, no significant weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq by the end of 2003.

At the beginning of March, the United States announced a breakthrough in the war on terror -� the arrest in Pakistan of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, considered a top operational commander of Al-Qaeda.

Then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer underlined the importance of the arrest: "President [Bush] expresses his deep appreciation and gratitude to [Pakistani] President Musharraf and to the government of Pakistan for their efforts this past weekend that led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 11 September attack. This is a very serious development and a blow to Al-Qaeda."

On 12 March came the news that an assassin's bullets had killed Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic called the assassination an attempt to destabilize the country: "This criminal act is clearly an attempt by those who, in previous years, tried to stop the development of Serbia and its democratization, to change the course of history and turn Serbia into an empire of criminals."

Forty-four alleged conspirators, linked to a criminal gang, are now awaiting trial for the killing.

On 19 March, U.S. President Bush issued an ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: Leave Iraq and allow coalition troops into the country to destroy weapons of mass destruction or face attack. One day later, President Bush announced the start of military operations: "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein�s ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign."

In early April, fears of a deadly epidemic began to take hold around the world. SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a flu-like illness, began causing deaths months earlier in southern China, but it quickly spread to more than 25 countries. The director-general of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland, held a news conference to say that SARS was confounding medical experts: "We still don't have a final and clear answer from the experts about what virus it is [that causes SARS]. But it seems to be a so-called corona virus, which is one of the common cold viruses. But this specific virus, in this case, has turned more nasty."

SARS infected about 8,000 people and killed nearly 800. The disease appears under control, for the time being, at least, thanks to strict quarantine and screening measures carried out in countries where it was detected.

On 9 April, televisions around the world carried the picture that symbolized the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein: A U.S. armored vehicle pulling down a statue of the dictator in front of cheering Iraqis in the center of Baghdad. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared the events to other turning points in world history.

"The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. We are seeing history unfold events that will shape the course of the country, the fate of the people, and potentially the future of the region," Rumsfeld said.

On 2 May, U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed home the U.S. aircraft carrier "Abraham Lincoln" off the coast of San Diego, after landing on its deck as a co-pilot in an attack jet. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," he said.

The president warned that difficult work remained in Iraq. And despite the end of major combat, small-scale attacks on coalition forces continued throughout 2003. By the end of the year, nearly twice as many U.S. forces had died in combat since Bush's "mission accomplished" speech as in the weeks that preceded it.

On 4 June, President Bush participated in a Middle East summit meeting in Aqaba, Jordan with Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Jordan's King Abdullah. Sharon promised to remove unauthorized settlement outposts and Abbas called for an end to the armed Palestinian uprising. President Bush spoke hopefully of the future: "Each of us is here because we understand that all people have the right to live in peace. We believe that with hard work and good faith and courage, it is possible to bring peace to the Middle East. And today, we mark important progress toward that goal."

Only a few months later, Abbas resigned as prime minister after a power struggle with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and back-and-forth violence left the Middle East peace process in disarray.

On 22 July, two of the most wanted men in Iraq, Saddam Hussein's sons, Qusay and Uday, along with two others, were cornered in a villa in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Soldiers from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division opened fire on the building after coming under attack.

Later, U.S. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, announced the deaths of Saddam's sons: "Four persons were killed during that operation and were removed from the building, and we have since confirmed that Uday and Qusay Hussein are among the dead."

In mid-August, the man dubbed the Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia was arrested in central Thailand and then turned over to U.S. authorities. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, allegedly took part in wide-ranging terrorist activities and planned the bombing of a disco in Bali, Indonesia that killed 202 people, including many Australians, in 2002.

"He's the main link between Al-Qaeda and J.I. [Jemaah Islamiah]. He was almost certainly the ultimate mastermind of the Bali attack. So to those relatives and friends of the 88 Australians who died in that outrage almost a year ago this is, I hope, some further measure of justice," Howard said.

On 19 August, terrorists detonated a truck bomb parked outside the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. More than 20 people were killed, including the UN special representative to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed his shock and outrage at the attack even as he remained resolute in his commitment to continue working to rebuild Iraq.

"We should not be distracted nor deterred by this senseless and brutal act of violence. Those who killed our colleagues have committed a crime, a crime not only against the United Nations, but against Iraq itself," Annan said.

At the end of August, in the Iraqi city of Al-Najaf, a car bomb killed Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and more than 100 others, only months after he returned from exile in Iran. Hundreds of thousands of supporters had turned up to hear speeches from the Shi'a cleric while he was alive. His many followers filled the streets during in his three-day funeral procession at the beginning of September.

Another assassination followed on 10 September in Sweden. The country�s foreign minister, Anna Lindh, was stabbed repeatedly while shopping at a Stockholm department store. Sweden's prime minister, Goran Persson, announced her death early the next morning: "I have received with sorrow information that Sweden's Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, died this morning at 5:29 a.m. of her wounds. Our thoughts are with Anna's family, husband, children and other close people. It feels unreal, difficult to understand."

A Swedish man of Serbian origin, with a history of mental illness, is expected to go on trial for the killing early next year.

On 10 October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its Peace Prize would go to a Muslim woman for the first time. Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi gained fame fighting for the rights of refugees, women, and children. At a news conference that day, she spoke directly to the Iranian government: "My request of the Iranian government yesterday, today, and in the days to come, is for all of us to be united and establish human rights in Iran."

On 25 October, Russian special forces seized oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovskii from a private plane at a Siberian airport. His supporters say Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the arrest after feeling threatened by the Yukos oil chief�s growing interest in politics. But a spokeswoman from the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office said the arrests of Khodorkovskii and a colleague were prompted by large-scale financial crimes.

"The criminal cases for fraud and tax evasion by Yukos and the structures it controls are without precedent -- both by the sums involved in the fraud and tax evasion and the amount of investigative work. As of today, the damage caused by Khodorkovskii and Platon Lebedev�s actions amounts to more than $1 billion," she said.

In Georgia, outrage spilled into the streets following parliamentary election on 2 November. Opposition parties claimed election fraud after the ruling party performed better than expected. They called for new elections and for President Eduard Shevardnadze to leave office. They got their wish on 23 November, shortly after opposition supporters stormed into the parliament, interrupting its inaugural session. Shevardnadze announced his resignation in a bloodless transition that became known as the "Revolution of the Roses."

"Now I see that what is happening would not end without blood if, tomorrow, I have to exercise the powers that I have in this situation. I have never been untrue to my people and so now I declare that it is better that the president resign, that everything ends," Shevardnadze said.

On 7 December, Russia held parliamentary elections. The result was a big win for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, giving it about half the seats in the Duma. Vladimir Putin, whose political strength was also greatly enhanced, called it a win for democracy.

"The main conclusion that we must draw today, regardless of the results of the activities of each individual party during the election campaign and regardless of the results on the basis of which the State Duma will be formed in the near future, is that this is yet another step toward strengthening democracy in Russia," Putin said.

However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized Kremlin's near-total domination of Russian media before the vote and questioned Russia�s willingness to move toward European standards for democratic elections.

And finally, one of the biggest stories of the year came near the very end of the year -- the capture of Saddam Hussein by U.S. military forces near his hometown of Tikrit. It was announced on 14 December at a Baghdad news conference by the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer. His words made headlines around the world: "Ladies and gentleman, we got him...."

The world saw video footage of a dirty, bearded Saddam Hussein submitting to a medical examination, after being pulled from a hole in the ground. It was a very different picture of the man than when the year began.
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