Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks at UN, justifies US invasion of Iraq


Year
2003
Month Day
February 05

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gives a speech to the United Nations that is both highly consequential and full of fabrications on February 5, 2003. Using talking points that many within his own government had told him were either misleading or outright lies, Powell outlined the United States’ case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, making the argument for the invasion that would happen the following month. Powell has called it a “blot” on his record.

President George W. Bush‘s administration contained several prominent officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, who had advocated for the First Gulf War and were known proponents of a second invasion of Iraq. Soon after a group of mostly-Saudi terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a movement began within the Bush administration to remove Iraq’s leader, the dictator Saddam Hussein, from power, on the grounds that he was connected to the attacks. Powell was not among this clique—according to him, he warned Bush in August of 2002 that removing Hussein might be easy but turning Iraq into a stable, friendly democracy would not be. At Powell’s urging, Bush took his case to the United Nations, leading to the decision to send inspectors into the country to search for “weapons of mass destruction.” The inspectors found no proof of such weapons, but Congress nonetheless authorized Bush to use military force against Iraq in October of 2002. According to Powell, Bush had already decided to do so before sending Powell to the UN.

Powell claimed he was delivering “facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence” as he told the UN that Iraq possessed biological weapons. He knew this to be a lie. He had reportedly received the text of the speech four days before it was to be given, during which time the State Department’s intelligence bureau had raised a host of red flags. Powell’s employees had identified many key claims as “weak,” “not credible,” or “highly questionable.” Among these questionable assertions were the claims that Iraqi officials had ordered biological weapons removed ahead of UN searches, that Iraq’s conventional missiles appeared fit to carry chemical weapons, and that Hussein possessed mobile labs capable of producing anthrax and other toxins. The speech cherry-picked testimony from various Iraqi sources, omitting that Hussein’s son-in-law, who had been in charge of Iraq’s WMD program before defecting in 1995, had testified that Iraq had destroyed all of its chemical weapons after the First Gulf War.

Powell’s speech may not have launched the invasion, which began in March, but it justified it to the American public and provided cover for the U.S. with the international community. Though the UN maintained that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, the Bush administration and allies like Tony Blair’s government in Britain felt that Powell’s speech had done the job. In addition to selling the war on false pretenses, it also had a disastrous unintended consequence: Powell made 21 mentions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calling him the link between Hussein and the Al-Qaeda network that had plotted the 9/11 attacks. In reality, the term Al-Qaeda had not been used by any of its alleged members until after 9/11; it was, in fact, a loose network of likeminded radicals that only congealed into a distinct organization after the United States targeted it. Likewise, Zarqawi had had only fleeting contact with the network before Powell’s speech. After the speech, however, Zarqawi began to amass a stronger following within Iraq, where he became a notorious insurgent leader and greatly escalated the guerrilla war against the United States into an all-out sectarian conflict.

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Hispanics are officially declared the largest minority group in the U.S.


Year
2003
Month Day
January 22

On January 22, 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau releases detailed statistics on race and ethnicity, the first time such numbers had been released since the 2000 census. The numbers showed that the Hispanic population of the United States had increased by 4.7 percent since the last count, officially making Hispanics the largest minority group in the country.

The trends of the last several decades had indicated that this milestone was approaching. The foreign-born population of the United States had been increasing exponentially, from just 9.6 million in 1970 to 31.1 million by 2000, and immigrants from Latin America accounted for a large percentage of those newcomers. The 2000 census showed that 29 percent of immigrants in the U.S. had come from Mexico alone, while immigrants from other Latin American nations made up another 22 percent. Birth rates in the Hispanic-American community were also among the highest in the nation.

The demographic shift was significant for several reasons. Robert Puro from the Pew Hispanic Center told the New York Times that it challenged the way Americans thought about race: “[M]uch of this nation’s history is wrapped up in the interplay between black and white,” he said. “This serves as an official announcement that we as Americans cannot think of race in that way any more.” The announcement marked one of the inciting moments for an undercurrent of racism that has brewed in America every since, as some whites have become increasingly concerned with brith rates and the notion that America will someday no longer be majority-white. But Sonia Perez, from the National Council of La Raza, framed the landmark as a moment for unity. “Rather than comparing groups,” she said, “we should be looking at the status of communities.”

The Hispanic-Americans represented by the census data have had a profound effect on American society. In many parts of the nation Spanish is now on at least equal footing with English, and American music and culture would be unrecognizable without the contributions of its largest minority group. 

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Baghdad falls to U.S. forces

On April 9, 2003, just three weeks into the invasion of Iraq, U.S. forces pull down a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolizing the end of the Iraqi president’s long, often brutal reign, and a major early victory for the United States.

Dramatic images of the toppled statue and celebrating citizens were instantly beamed around the world. With Hussein in hiding and much of the city now under U.S. control, the day’s events later became known as the Fall of Baghdad.

“Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators, and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom,” then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a Pentagon briefing.

The Iraq War was far from over, however. Hussein was captured by U.S. forces in December 2003 and executed in December 2006, but the United States would not formally withdraw from Iraq until December 2011, eight years after the conflict first began. 

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Saddam Hussein captured


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Year
2003
Month Day
December 13

After spending nine months on the run, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is captured on December 13, 2003. Saddam’s downfall began on March 20, 2003, when the United States led an invasion force into Iraq to topple his government, which had controlled the country for more than 20 years.

Saddam Hussein was born into a poor family in Tikrit, 100 miles outside of Baghdad, in 1937. After moving to Baghdad as a teenager, Saddam joined the now-infamous Baath party, which he would later lead. He participated in several coup attempts, finally helping to install his cousin as dictator of Iraq in July 1968. Saddam took over for his cousin 11 years later. During his 24 years in office, Saddam’s secret police, charged with protecting his power, terrorized the public, ignoring the human rights of the nation’s citizens. While many of his people faced poverty, he lived in incredible luxury, building more than 20 lavish palaces throughout the country. Obsessed with security, he is said to have moved among them often, always sleeping in secret locations.

In the early 1980s, Saddam involved his country in an eight-year war with Iran, which is estimated to have taken more than a million lives on both sides. He is alleged to have used nerve agents and mustard gas on Iranian soldiers during the conflict, as well as chemical weapons on Iraq’s own Kurdish population in northern Iraq in 1988. After he invaded Kuwait in 1990, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 1991, forcing the dictator’s army to leave its smaller neighbor, but failing to remove Saddam from power. Throughout the 1990s, Saddam faced both U.N. economic sanctions and air strikes aimed at crippling his ability to produce chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. With Iraq continuing to face allegations of illegal oil sales and weapons-building, the United States again invaded the country in March 2003, this time with the expressed purpose of ousting Saddam and his regime.

Despite proclaiming in early March 2003 that, “it is without doubt that the faithful will be victorious against aggression,” Saddam went into hiding soon after the American invasion, speaking to his people only through an occasional audiotape, and his government soon fell. After declaring Saddam the most important of a list of his regime’s 55 most-wanted members, the United States began an intense search for the former leader and his closest advisors. On July 22, 2003, Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, who many believe he was grooming to one day fill his shoes, were killed when U.S. soldiers raided a villa in which they were staying in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Five months later, on December 13, 2003, U.S. soldiers found Saddam Hussein hiding in a six-to-eight-foot deep hole, nine miles outside his hometown of Tikrit. The man once obsessed with hygiene was found to be unkempt, with a bushy beard and matted hair. He did not resist and was uninjured during the arrest. A soldier at the scene described him as “a man resigned to his fate.”

After standing trial, he was executed on December 30, 2006. Despite a prolonged search, weapons of mass destruction were never found in Iraq.

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War in Iraq begins


Year
2003
Month Day
March 19

On March 19, 2003, the United States, along with coalition forces primarily from the United Kingdom, initiates war on Iraq. Just after explosions began to rock Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, U.S. President George W. Bush announced in a televised address, “At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” President Bush and his advisors built much of their case for war on the idea that Iraq, under dictator Saddam Hussein, possessed or was in the process of building weapons of mass destruction.

Hostilities began about 90 minutes after the U.S.-imposed deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face war passed. The first targets, which Bush said were “of military importance,” were hit with Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. fighter-bombers and warships stationed in the Persian Gulf. In response to the attacks, Republic of Iraq radio in Baghdad announced, “the evil ones, the enemies of God, the homeland and humanity, have committed the stupidity of aggression against our homeland and people.”

Though Saddam Hussein had declared in early March 2003 that, “it is without doubt that the faithful will be victorious against aggression,” he went into hiding soon after the American invasion, speaking to his people only through an occasional audiotape. Coalition forces were able to topple his regime and capture Iraq’s major cities in just three weeks, sustaining few casualties. President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003. Despite the defeat of conventional military forces in Iraq, an insurgency has continued an intense guerrilla war in the nation in the years since military victory was announced, resulting in thousands of coalition military, insurgent and civilian deaths.

After an intense manhunt, U.S. soldiers found Saddam Hussein hiding in a six-to-eight-foot deep hole, nine miles outside his hometown of Tikrit. He did not resist and was uninjured during the arrest. A soldier at the scene described him as “a man resigned to his fate.” Hussein was arrested and began trial for crimes against his people, including mass killings, in October 2005.

In June 2004, the provisional government in place since soon after Saddam’s ouster transferred power to the Iraqi Interim Government. In January 2005, the Iraqi people elected a 275-member Iraqi National Assembly. A new constitution for the country was ratified that October. On November 6, 2006, Saddam Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. After an unsuccessful appeal, he was executed on December 30, 2006.

No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. The U.S. declared an end to the war in Iraq on December 15, 2011, nearly ten years after the fighting began. 

READ MORE: The Surprising Interrogations That Led to Saddam Hussein’s Capture

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The Dixie Chicks backlash begins


Year
2003
Month Day
March 12

In response to the critical comments made about him by Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush offered this response: “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say.” Of the backlash the Dixie Chicks were then facing within the world of country music, President Bush added: “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out.” This music-related sideshow to the biggest international news story of the year began on March 12, 2003, when the British newspaper The Guardian published its review of a Dixie Chicks concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London two nights earlier.

In that review, The Guardian‘sBetty Clarke included the following line: “‘Just so you know,’ says singer Natalie Maines, ‘We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.’” (Clarke left out the middle of the full quotation, which was, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”) That line quickly became fodder for a grassroots anti-Dixie Chicks backlash. It began with thousands of phone calls flooding country-music radio stations from Denver to Nashville—calls demanding that the Dixie Chicks be removed from the stations’ playlists. Soon some of those same stations were calling for a boycott of the recent Dixie Chicks’ album and of their upcoming U.S. tour. Fellow country star Toby Keith famously joined the fray by performing in front of a backdrop that featured a gigantic image of Natalie Maines beside Saddam Hussein.

The economic and emotional impact of all this on the members of the Dixie Chicks is documented in the 2006 documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing. In its opening sequence, one can see how popular and how far from controversial the Dixie Chicks were just prior to this controversy, when they sang the national anthem at the 2003 Super Bowl. The film also captures a scene in which the Dixie Chicks’ own media handler is counseling Maines not to speak her mind too openly about President Bush in an upcoming interview with Diane Sawyer. 

In 2019, after a 14-year hiatus, the Dixie Chicks announced they were releasing a new album. 

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Third and final “Lord of the Rings” movie opens


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Year
2003
Month Day
December 17

On December 17, 2003, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final film in the trilogy based on the best-selling fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, opens in theaters. The film was a huge box-office success and won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, for Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings trilogy became one of the highest-grossing franchises in movie history, netting billions of dollars worldwide in box-office proceeds and related merchandise.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Blomfontein, South Africa, and raised primarily in England. He graduated from Oxford, served in World War I and went on to become a linguist and professor at Oxford. One day when Tolkien was grading exam papers, he reportedly was inspired in a moment of boredom to write across the top of one page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” From there, he began developing the story into his novel The Hobbit, which was first published in 1937. A sequel, The Lord of the Rings, was published in three volumes between 1954 and 1955. The books are set in a place called Middle Earth and revolve around the adventures of a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, who must destroy a powerful ring and save the world from evil.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels produced legions of fans around the world and were was adapted for radio, television and theater. He died at the age of 81 on September 2, 1973, in Bournemouth, England, almost three decades before his work was adapted into the blockbuster big-screen trilogy directed, co-written and co-produced by Peter Jackson. Shot in New Zealand, the trilogy starred Elijah Wood as Frodo, along with a large ensemble cast that included Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett.

On December 19, 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the highly anticipated first film in the trilogy, debuted in theaters around the world. The film received 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (McKellen)and collected four Oscars, for Visual Effects, Cinematography, Makeup and Music (Original Score). The second movie in the series, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, opened in theaters on December 18, 2002, and received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was released in theaters on December 17, 2003; it swept all 11 Oscar categories in which it was nominated.

Peter Jackson, born on October 31, 1961, in Pukerua Bay, New Zealand, first gained notice in Hollywood as the director and co-writer of the 1994 true-crime drama Heavenly Creatures, which co-starred Kate Winslet. In addition to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson directed and co-wrote 2005’s King Kong, with Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody and Jack Black, 2009’s The Lovely Bones and 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (as well as its two sequels). 

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Rhode Island nightclub burns


Year
2003
Month Day
February 20

A fire at a rock concert in a West Warwick, Rhode Island, nightclub kills 100 people and seriously injures almost 200 more on February 20, 2003. It was the deadliest such fire in the United States since 165 people were killed at the Beverly Hill Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, in 1977.

On the night of February 20, a local news crew was on hand at the Station nightclub to report on the issue of nightclub safety. (Four days earlier, 21 people had been killed during a stampede at a club in Chicago.) Helping out with the report was Jeffrey Derderian, who co-owned the Station with his brother Michael. That night, they were expecting a full house to see the heavy-metal band Great White.

Just after 11 p.m., near the beginning of the show, Daniel Biechele, Great White’s tour manager, set off some pyrotechnics behind the performers, which set fire to the soundproofing foam on the ceiling. For a short time, no one realized the severity of the situation. As the fire spread rapidly, though, panic ensued. Most of the 400 people at the concert attempted to leave the club through the front entrance.

As black smoke filled the club’s interior, the desperate rush of people to the front entrance caused a pile-up, trapping people where they stood. Though firefighters, who responded within minutes, worked hard to pull people to safety through the front door, 96 people died in the smoke and flames. Most of the bodies were found near the front entrance. Among the dead was Great White’s guitarist, Ty Longley. Another 35 people were left in critical condition, including four who would later die from their injuries.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Daniel Biechele was indicted for setting off the pyrotechnics without a permit. He pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and received a sentence of four years in prison with 11 more years suspended. Michael Derderian pled guilty for his role in maintaining the Station and received a 15-year sentence (four years to serve, and 11 years suspended). His brother Jeffrey got a 10-year suspended sentence.

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Columbia Space Shuttle mission ends in disaster


On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia breaks up while entering the atmosphere over Texas, killing all seven crew members on board.

The Columbia‘s 28th space mission, designated STS-107, was originally scheduled to launch on January 11, 2001, but was delayed numerous times for a variety of reasons over nearly two years. Columbia finally launched on January 16, 2003, with a crew of seven. Eighty seconds into the launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the shuttle’s propellant tank and hit the edge of the shuttle’s left wing.

Cameras focused on the launch sequence revealed the foam collision but engineers could not pinpoint the location and extent of the damage. Although similar incidents had occurred on three prior shuttle launches without causing critical damage, some engineers at the space agency believed that the damage to the wing could cause a catastrophic failure. Their concerns were not addressed in the two weeks that Columbia spent in orbit because NASA management believed that even if major damage had been caused, there was little that could be done to remedy the situation.

Columbia reentered the earth’s atmosphere on the morning of February 1. It wasn’t until 10 minutes later, at 8:53 a.m.–as the shuttle was 231,000 feet above the California coastline traveling at 23 times the speed of sound–that the first indications of trouble began. Because the heat-resistant tiles covering the left wing’s leading edge had been damaged or were missing, wind and heat entered the wing and blew it apart.

The first debris began falling to the ground in west Texas near Lubbock at 8:58 a.m. One minute later, the last communication from the crew was heard, and at 9 a.m. the shuttle disintegrated over southeast Texas, near Dallas. Residents in the area heard a loud boom and saw streaks of smoke in the sky. Debris and the remains of the crew were found in more than 2,000 locations across East Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Making the tragedy even worse, two pilots aboard a search helicopter were killed in a crash while looking for debris. Strangely, worms that the crew had used in a study that were stored in a canister aboard the Columbia did survive.

In August 2003, an investigation board issued a report that revealed that it in fact would have been possible either for the Columbia crew to repair the damage to the wing or for the crew to be rescued from the shuttle. The Columbia could have stayed in orbit until February 15 and the already planned launch of the shuttle Atlantis could have been moved up as early as February 10, leaving a short window for repairing the wing or getting the crew off of the Columbia.

In the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, the space shuttle program was grounded until July 16, 2005, when the space shuttle Discovery was put into orbit.

READ MORE: Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

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Police recover Elizabeth Smart and arrest her abductors


Year
2003
Month Day
March 12

On March 12, 2003, 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart is finally found in Sandy, Utah, nine months after being abducted from her family’s home. Her alleged kidnappers, Brian David Mitchell, a drifter who the Smarts had briefly employed at their house, and his wife, Wanda Barzee, were charged with the kidnapping, as well as burglary and sexual assault.

In the middle of the night on June 5, 2002, Elizabeth Smart, then 14 years old, was taken at knifepoint from her bedroom in her parents’ house in the upscale Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City. Her captor slid into the house undetected after cutting open the screen of an open window. Elizabeth’s younger sister, Mary Katherine, with whom she shared her bedroom, was the only witness to the kidnapping. Mary Katherine did not inform her parents until two hours after the incident, frightened that the man might return for her if she called out to alert them. She was initially unable to identify her sister’s attacker.

Elizabeth was taken to a crude campsite in the woods just three miles from her family’s home–close enough that she could actually hear the voices of searchers calling for her in the days following her abduction. There, it is alleged that Mitchell, who calls himself Emmanuel and professes to be a prophet with his own Mormon sect, sexually assaulted her.

After two months, Smart, who was forced to wear a wig and dress in a robe and veil, was taken to Salt Lake City and appeared in public, but was not recognized. From there, Mitchell and Barzee took Smart to San Diego, where they lived in a series of campsites and under bridges. Finally, the group returned to the Salt Lake City area and, just a couple of hours later, several people recognized Elizabeth. They reported their sightings to police, who immediately followed up on the lead and pulled over a car carrying Mitchell, Barzee and Smart.

Most of the early police investigation into Elizabeth’s disappearance had focused on another suspect, Richard Ricci, who had also once worked as a handyman in the Smart home. Serving time in prison for a parole violation during the investigation, Ricci denied having any involvement in the kidnapping. The trail grew cold after Ricci died in prison of a brain hemorrhage on August 30. Finally in early February 2003, Mary Katherine Smart told her parents she believed another former worker at the Smart home, who called himself Emmanuel, might be Elizabeth’s captor and the Smarts relayed the information to authorities. On February 3, believing that the police were not taking Mary Katherine’s tip seriously, the Smart family called their own press conference to release a sketch of Emmanuel. Several days later, a man contacted police to inform them that Emmanuel was his disturbed stepfather, Brian David Mitchell, and that he believed him to indeed be capable of kidnapping. In the days before finding Elizabeth, the Smarts continued to criticize police for failing to devote enough energy to following up on the lead.

When found, Smart, who called herself Augustine, most likely at the behest of Mitchell, initially denied to police that she was in fact Elizabeth Smart. Undeterred, police took her and her captors in separate cars to the Salt Lake City Police Department, where she was reunited with her family. On March 18, 2003, after Mitchell and Barzee were formally charged, Mitchell’s attorney announced that his client considered taking Elizabeth a call from God. It has since been reported that Mitchell believed Smart was his wife and that the young girl may have suffered from Stockholm syndrome during the nine-month ordeal, answering questions as to why she did not try to escape even though it seemed she had been presented with several opportunities.

Police later discovered that Mitchell had also attempted to kidnap Smart’s cousin several weeks after taking Elizabeth and added that crime to the list of charges against him. Mitchell was declared mentally unfit to stand trial in July 2005 and December 2006; Barzee, who filed for divorce from Mitchell in December 2004, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for her role in the kidnapping in November 2009. On May 25, 2011, after being ruled competent to stand trial in March 2010 and convicted that December, Mitchell was sentenced to life in federal prison.

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