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2003 & Beyond: RFE/RL's Top 10 (Non-Iraqi) News Events Of The Year

What were the biggest single news events of 2003? Happenings in Iraq would obviously top the list -- from the bombing of Baghdad on the war's first day to the fall of the capital in early April and the deadly bombing of the UN headquarters by Iraqi insurgents in August -- not to mention the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein himself near Tikrit last week. But what were the other top news events of 2003? RFE/RL polled its correspondents, editors, and analysts and came up with its Top 10 of 2003.

Prague, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- 10. "The road map that has been presented by the Quartet [the U.S., UN, Russia, and EU] places obligations and responsibilities on all of the parties. We must see the end of terror and the end of violence. We will press the Israeli side to do everything that is possible to make it easier for people to move around the territories and for them to play their role as we move forward."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell describes the event at No. 10 -- a new peace plan for the Middle East. The "road map," unveiled in April, called for compromises from both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Its ultimate aim -- an independent Palestinian state within two years, and security for Israel. But it was always going to be a bumpy road. Talks stalled over continuing Palestinian suicide bombings and construction of Israel's security barrier. Frustrated, moderates on both sides published an "alternative" peace plan, the Geneva Initiative, at the end of the year. The UN and the United States said "thanks" -- but that the road map would remain the key peace plan.

9. Chechnya. "As the newly elected president of Chechnya, I swear to implement the Chechen constitution, to uphold human rights and freedoms, as well as the rights of the multinational people of Chechnya."

Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was sworn in as Chechen president after one of the year's least-surprising elections. The Kremlin hailed the apparent "huge turnout" and said the October vote was a big step toward bringing peace and stability to the breakaway republic. But critics called it a farce. Polling stations were suspiciously empty. The Kremlin-backed Kadyrov had no serious rivals in the vote -- other challengers withdrew, were forced out or enticed away with better job offers. Most international monitors shunned the poll, which the U.S. said did not meet international standards.

8. November saw the unveiling of a new draft constitution for Afghanistan.

"Praise be to God that we offer today, in the presence of all of you, the national document of the Afghan people, which is the draft constitution of the Islamic Transitional Administration of Afghanistan."

The document -- unveiled by Afghan vice president and chairman of the Constitutional Commission, Nematullah Shahrani -- is meant to pave the way for the country's first democratic elections, planned for next year. Some 500 delegates are now meeting in Kabul to debate and, hopefully, approve the draft at a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly. But there are sharp differences over the most suitable system of government -- presidential or parliamentary -- for the country. And the deteriorating security situation in the country is an ever-present concern. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned this month it could derail the whole political process.

7. "While executing the authority of Azerbaijan's president, I swear to protect the state's independence and territorial integrity and to serve the nation wholeheartedly."

It came as no surprise. Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, Heidar, as Azerbaijan's president in October, winning an election that international observers said was plagued with irregularities. Opposition supporters protested the outcome and clashed with police. At least one person was killed.

6. China sent a man into orbit, joining the exclusive "space club" some 40 years after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Did Yang Liwei's 21-hour flight herald a new space race? Observers said "unlikely." But China said it does have further ambitions -- a moon landing, even a mission to Mars. And it may have partially inspired U.S. officials to talk of sending a man back to the moon. That idea came up as a way to inject new life into America's space program, after the tragic accident that is our news event No. 5.

5. MISSION CONTROL IN HOUSTON: "Columbia, Houston, we see your tire-pressure messages and we did not copy (understand) your last [transmission]."

COLUMBIA: "Roger, uh ..."

Those were the last words heard from the U.S. space shuttle Columbia before it broke up on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere on 1 February. The disaster killed all seven astronauts on board. Initially, there were fears of terrorism. An investigation isolated the real cause as a hole in the heat shields on the shuttle's wing, likely caused by a falling piece of debris during the launch. The disaster grounded NASA's shuttles. Crews and supplies for the International Space Station have had to travel instead in Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

4. In October, lawyer Shirin Ebadi became the first Muslim woman -- and the first Iranian -- to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for her work defending the rights of women and children.

"This prize gives me the assurance and confidence that the path I chose to achieve human rights is the correct one. I must say that this prize belongs not only to me but to everyone inside and outside of Iran who fights to obtain freedom, human rights and peace."

The award was seen as encouraging news for Iranians struggling for reform and greater rights for women. But hard-liners denounced Ebadi as a tool of the West, and she's received death threats since returning to Tehran.

3. In October, Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii showed he had a talent for predicting the future.

"I have no intention of becoming a political emigrant, so if [their] job is either to push me out of the country or to put me behind bars, then [they'll] have to put me behind bars, because I won't become a political emigrant."

Later that month, the Yukos boss was taken from his private jet by Russian security agents and arrested on fraud and tax evasion charges. Khodorkovskii's arrest sent chills through Russian financial markets and prompted concerns about Russia's commitment to a free-market economy and the rule of law. Critics said his arrest was politically motivated. It was a crude way, they said, of punishing him for meddling in politics and funding opposition parties ahead of parliamentary elections earlier this month -- elections, by the way, that gave a sweeping victory to allies of President Vladimir Putin, but which observers said were unfair.

2. "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."

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic announced the death of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in mid-March. Serbia imposed a state of emergency after Djindjic's assassination, which authorities blamed on an alliance of organized criminals and hard-line nationalists. Thousands were arrested in a police crackdown that followed. But the clampdown raised concerns, too. There were allegations some detainees were tortured or ill-treated.

And Serbia is still feeling the political aftershocks of the assassination. It weakened the ruling coalition, which finally disintegrated in November. As reformists' fortunes waned, nationalists enjoyed a surge of support in November's failed presidential elections. The reformists' next big challenge will be this month's parliamentary elections on 28 December.

1. The No. 1 non-Iraqi news event of 2003, as judged by RFE/RL staff, was certainly dramatic, unfolding live on television screens around the world.

"We are conducting a peaceful meeting of parliament. We want the chairman of parliament, Nino Burjanadze, to chair it and to conduct a peaceful change of power. We were peaceful. No police stopped us. We did not use weapons. We let our hands up to show we had no arms, and they let us in."

Georgian opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili spoke on the afternoon when hundreds of his supporters stormed parliament, forcing President Eduard Shevardnadze to be hustled out of the building. It was the culmination of weeks of public protests over parliamentary elections the opposition said had been rigged in favor of parties loyal to Shevardnadze.

Saakashvili said it was a "revolution of roses." Shevardnadze called it an attempted coup. But within a day, Shevardnadze had bowed to the protests and resigned.

"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's ouster paved the way for fresh Georgian presidential and parliamentary polls, both scheduled for January 2004.