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An explosive year

2003 defined by both tragedy and hope

An explosion in the "shock and awe" campaign hits Baghdad on Friday, March 21, 2003.

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(CNN) -- One of 2003's most searing and significant images occurred high over Baghdad on March 19, as antiaircraft fire and explosions on the ground illuminated the Iraqi skies and marked the start of the War in Iraq.

What the U.S. military called a "decapitation strike" designed to kill Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his command structure, and several more nights of intense air attacks, gave way to a fast and furious coalition ground push northward from Kuwait toward the Iraqi capital. More>>

The swift campaign climaxed April 9 with the symbolic toppling of a statue of Saddam in Baghdad. On May 1, President Bush, speaking to Navy sailors under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished," declared an end to major combat operations.

But the fighting was far from over, and by summer, coalition forces found themselves fending off frequent and often fatal attacks, all while trying to rebuild Iraq. The coalition did have reason to celebrate in December, when U.S. forces captured Saddam near Tikrit. More>>

While the Bush administration framed the Iraq conflict as part of its war on terror, terrorists continued to strike around the globe, launching fatal attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia; Casablanca, Morocco; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Istanbul, Turkey.

The war in Iraq -- including the weighty U.N. debate, the coalition invasion and struggles to rebuild the nation and maintain control -- dominated this year's headlines. But the conflict was just one of many of 2003's top stories that were defined by their striking scope and their explosiveness, from outbreaks to outages, from infernos to scandals.

Undone by fire

On February 1, a plume of smoke arose over Texas -- evidence of the space shuttle Columbia's disintegration as it returned to Earth. The breakup killed all seven astronauts aboard and led to extensive investigations and policy changes at NASA. More>>

Later in February, twin tragedies took scores of lives at nightspots half a continent apart.

Early on February 17, 21 people died in a stampede at a nightclub in Chicago, Illinois. Then, late on February 20, faulty pyrotechnics during a concert sparked a fire that engulfed The Station, a crowded club in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Ninety-six people died at the scene, and at least three others died later at area hospitals.

For two weeks in October, California wildfires driven by strong Santa Ana winds scorched 1 million acres, led to 22 deaths, destroyed more than 4,800 structures and prompted federal government payouts of nearly $74 million, according to The Associated Press.

Personal stories stoke heartstrings

One of the year's most moving, yet disturbing stories broke March 12, when Utah authorities found 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart alive, nine months after her disappearance prompted mass media attention and exhaustive searches.

The media also swarmed after a white tiger bit and nearly killed Roy Horn, half of the Las Vegas-based duo of Siegfried & Roy.

To the relief of his many friends and fans, the performer is recovering from the mauling.

The plight of Laci Peterson, eight months pregnant when last seen on Christmas Eve 2002, had a far gloomier ending.

After months of searches, authorities found her remains and those of her baby son in San Francisco Bay on April 14, and, four days later, arrested her husband, Scott Peterson. He was later charged with murder and is awaiting trial.

Widespread impact

While such personal travails captured the public's attention, many of the year's most significant stories had a far wider impact, affecting the lives of millions.

Brooklyn Bridge
Vehicles and pedestrians shared the Brooklyn Bridge on August 14, 2003 when a massive power outage swept through the northeastern United States and parts of Canada.

On August 14, a blackout enveloped much of southern Canada and the northeastern United States, leaving tens of millions of people without power.

The collapse of electrical grids -- later traced to three power line failures in Ohio -- knocked out electricity from New York City to Toronto, Ontario, for more than a day.

A month earlier, the World Health Organization declared an end to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome early in the year. SARS spread quickly, killing more than 750 people and infecting about 8,000 others in 25 countries.

As scientists searched for a vaccine, SARS wreaked economic, social and personal havoc from Beijing, China, to Toronto -- disrupting trade, travel and major events, including the women's soccer World Cup, which was moved from China to the United States. More>>

Many nations besides Iraq, experienced political upheaval in 2003.

In a bid to end 14 years of civil war, Liberian President Charles Taylor resigned his post and left the country, as international peacekeepers came in. More>>

An assassin killed Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who played a key role in the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, while Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze gave up power peacefully after widespread protests.

Scandal, love and loss

The U.S. media, and particularly the tabloids, predictably gave extensive coverage to celebrities -- particularly the legal travails of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson.

Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers basketball player, was thrust into the harsh media glare when he was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman in Colorado. More>>

On November 20, the spotlight turned to Jackson. Two days after authorities searched his famed Neverland ranch, the enigmatic singer was booked on charges of child molestation.

Accusations of sexual impropriety also dogged actor Arnold Schwarzenegger during his bid to become California's governor.

But the reports, many of them surfacing less than a week before Election Day, did not slow his political momentum. In October, Golden State voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis and tabbed the Austrian bodybuilder-turned actor-turned politician as his replacement. More>>

The on-again, off-again, on-again marriage of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck tickled the tabloids' fancy. Not to be outdone in the publicity department were music and sex icons Madonna and Britney Spears, who rustled up headlines by locking lips at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Meanwhile, Hollywood mourned the passing of several legendary stars, including Bob Hope, Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Other luminaries who died in 2003 included Sens. Strom Thurmond and Daniel Patrick Moynihan; singers Johnny Cash and Celia Cruz; childrens' television pioneer Fred Rogers; and sports pioneers Althea Gibson and Larry Doby. More>>

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