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2006-09-11,12:27 PM

US remembers victims on eve of 9/11 anniversary

The United States embarked on two days of solemn remembrance of the September 11 attacks of five years ago which stunned the world and dramatically changed the global landscape.

US President George W. Bush, whose presidency was reshaped by the terror strikes that killed nearly 3,000 people, launched the anniversary events by laying wreaths in reflecting pools where the World Trade Center's twin towers once stood.
Accompanied by his wife, Laura, Bush silently placed two garlands at the spot popularly known as "Ground Zero" before attending a service of prayer and remembrance at Saint Paul's Chapel across the street.

A few dozen protesters greeted Bush, whose approval ratings have dipped sharply since he stood in the ruins of World Trade Center with a bullhorn five years ago to rally the American people.

Bush's popularity has plunged mainly because of the war in Iraq and public concern over whether the country is safer five years after the devastation wrought by Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind who remains at large.

On the eve of the anniversary, US administration officials acknowledged that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was not behind September 11 but defended the decision to invade, insisting Saddam was linked to the Al-Qaeda network.

"We've never been able to confirm a connection between Iraq and 9/11," Vice President Dick Cheney said on NBC, but he added that a connection with Al-Qaeda was "different issue."

"There are two totally different propositions here. People have consistently tried to confuse them," he said, calling Saddam a state sponsor of terror and noting that the late Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in Iraq before the US invasion.

Five years after the attacks left the world's superpower reeling, September 11 remains the defining moment of Bush's presidency and a watershed in recent American history, spurring the United States to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But despite the billions of dollars spent on the military campaigns, Bin Laden, believed to be hiding in the rough, mountainous region straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, remains at large, and the Washington Post reported Sunday that his trail had grown "stone cold."

The newspaper said no tips, human or electronic, had led them anywhere near the Al-Qaeda leader, citing unnamed US and Pakistani officials.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowleged that the United States does not know Bin Laden's precise location.

"He doesn't communicate, apparently, very much," she said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. "And it is not easy to track someone who is determined to hide in very remote areas."

But, she said, there are "fewer and fewer places for him to hide."

Bush has called for flags to fly at half mast on Monday and for people across the country to observe a moment of silence at 8:46 am (1246 GMT), the exact time that the first of two planes ploughed into the World Trade Center.

Bush will lay a wreath in the Pennsylvania field where a third jet crashed after passengers fought back against their hijackers, killing 40 people.

He will then fly to the Pentagon for commemorations there.

In what has become an annual ritual, husbands, wives and partners of the 2,749 people who perished in the World Trade Center will read a roll call of the dead.

As evening falls, two giant beams of light symbolising the collapsed towers will illuminate the Manhattan sky. A candle-lit vigil is planned at Ground Zero.

For only the fifth time in his presidency, Bush will deliver a televised address to the nation from the White House in the evening, in what has been billed as "a non-political speech about what September 11 has meant to the nation."

In the run-up to the anniversary, Bush has made several speeches justifying decisions made in the name of the so-called "war on terror."

"America still faces determined enemies," Bush said in the latest on Saturday. "We must take the words of these extremists seriously, and we must act decisively to stop them from achieving their evil aims."

As in previous years, Arab television broadcast fresh Al-Qaeda video footage just days ahead of the anniversary -- this time purportedly showing bin Laden and two of the 19 hijackers preparing for the attacks.

Since September 11, the Islamist militant group has launched attacks on both London and Madrid, killing hundreds of people in reprisal for Britain and Spain's support of the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

More than 2,600 US troops have been killed in Iraq since the invasion, a toll that pales in comparison to the number of Iraqis who have died in sectarian violence, with more than 1,500 killed in Baghdad just last month.

The deeply unpopular war has cost Bush and his Republican Party friends at home and abroad. With a personal approval rating hovering around 40 percent, Bush goes into November mid-term elections facing the real prospect of losing control of Congress.

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