Islam is not the enemy - Obama
New York - President Barack Obama told a deeply polarised America on Saturday that Islam is not the enemy as ceremonies took place to mark an unusually tense 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Moving remembrance ceremonies were held to honour the nearly 3 000 people killed when Islamist hijackers slammed airliners into New York's World Trade Centre, the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in Pennsylvania.
But with protests planned at a proposed mosque two blocks from Ground Zero and a Florida pastor triggering demonstrations across the Muslim world with his threat to burn the Qu'ran, this was the most politicised 9/11 anniversary yet.
Speaking at the Pentagon, Obama addressed the politically explosive domestic debate as well as enraged Muslims abroad.
"As Americans we will not and never will be at war with Islam. It was not a religion that attacked us that September day. It was al-Qaeda, (a) sorry band of men, which perverts religion," Obama said, urging Americans not to succumb to "hatred and prejudice".
"Just as we condemn intolerance and extremism abroad, so will we stay true to our traditions here at home as a diverse and tolerant nation," he urged.
At Ground Zero, where for the first time reconstruction work is visibly gathering pace, a youth choir opened the ceremony with the national anthem.
Vice President Joseph Biden and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg were among those attending the annual ritual of reading the names of all 2 752 people killed when two hijacked airliners destroyed the Twin Towers.
Bereaved relatives held up portraits of their lost loved ones under a perfectly clear sky as they listened to the litany of names read by often tearful survivors and members of the reconstruction team.
"We come not to mourn, but to remember and rebuild," Biden said.
At a third ceremony in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the fourth plane seized by the attackers crashed in a field, First Lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor, Laura Bush, addressed relatives of the passengers and crew.
"May the memories of those who gave their lives here continue to be a blessing to all of you and an inspiration to all Americans," Obama urged.
Usually a day of carefully choreographed respect, this year's 9/11 anniversary has been marred by an angry debate over the planned mosque near Ground Zero and Florida pastor Terry Jones' threat to publicly burn the Qu'ran if the mosque is not scrapped.
The pastor arrived in New York late on Friday to continue publicising his campaign, while rival street rallies were planned near the controversial mosque project site.
On Saturday, the pastor told NBC television he no longer wanted to desecrate the Muslim holy book, "not today (Saturday), not ever".
But his stunt had already raised political temperatures in the United States and triggered protests across the Muslim world, including a riot in Afghanistan where US commanders say they fear a backlash for their troops.
Obama, who has forcefully defended the mosque plan as being protected under the US constitution, said again on Saturday that "we champion the rights of every American, including the right to worship as one chooses".
Demonstrators supporting the right of Muslims to build an Islamic community centre and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero said in a first protest late on Friday that Muslims across the United States were being demonised over the nearly decade-old 9/11 attacks.
"We stand together to rebuff the stereotypes," Susan Lerner, New York director of the rights group Common Cause, told the crowd. "We reject the idea that any neighbourhood in our great city is off limits to any particular group."
Anti-mosque demonstrators, led by ultra-conservative groups, predicted a large protest of their own on Saturday.
Some protestors accuse the Islamic centre of aiming to honour the 9/11 terrorists and argue that Muslims should not be allowed a significant presence anywhere near Ground Zero.
Others say that the feelings of families of those killed on 9/11 are still too raw to accept the project.
The political turmoil around this year's anniversary has disturbed many who have asked for the day to remain purely commemorative.
"Let me say just one thing," one of the survivors said in tears, after reading the name of her lost family member in the Ground Zero ceremony.
"This is a day to be sombre, a day to reflect on all those thousands of people who died on us in the United States."