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Obama marks D-Day's 65th anniversary

OMAHA BEACH, France - President Barack Obama honored thevaliant dead and the "sheer improbability" of their D-Dayvictory, commemorating Saturday's 65th anniversary of the decisiveinvasion even as he remakes two wars and tries to thwart potentialnuclear threats in Iran and North Korea.

The young U.S. commander in chief, speaking at the Americancemetery after the leaders of France, Canada and Britain, held upthe sacrifices of D-Day veterans and their "unimaginable hell" asa lesson for modern times.

"Friends and veterans, what we cannot forget -- what we must notforget -- is that D-Day was a time and a place where the bravery andselflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entirecentury," he said.

"At an hour of maximum danger, amid the bleakest ofcircumstances, men who thought themselves ordinary found it withinthemselves to do the extraordinary."

Obama opened the emotional day by meeting with French PresidentNicolas Sarkozy in the nearby picturesque village of Caen. Theirwives, dueling style icons in similar attire, met separately at theelegant French Prefecture.

Appearing with Sarkozy before reporters, Obama displayed growingimpatience with North Korea and what he called its"extraordinarily provocative" nuclear and ballistic missiletests. He suggested that the North is testing internationalpatience as diplomacy has failed to persuade the reclusivecommunist government to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

"Diplomacy has to involve the other side engaging in a seriousway in trying to solve problems," he said. "We are going to takea very hard look at how we move forward on these issues, and Idon't think that there should be an assumption that we will simplycontinue down a path in which North Korea is constantlydestabilizing the region and we just react in the same ways."

Obama also took on Iran, suspected by the West of seeking tobuild its first nuclear bomb, an accusation Tehran denies. Thepresident has said military action remains on the table, but hasoffered to change U.S. policy and engage in talks with Tehran. Hesaid Saturday, though, it must be "tough diplomacy."

"We can't afford a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,"Obama warned. Sarkozy said he worries about "insane statements"by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

At the same time, Obama is directing wars in Iraq andAfghanistan -- seeking to end the first and stepping up U.S.engagement in the second. Both have lasted longer than the U.S.involvement in World War II.

This D-Day anniversary assumed special significance becauseveterans of the battle are reaching their 80s and 90s and theirnumbers are dwindling. One American veteran, Jim Norene, who foughtwith the 101st Airborne Division, came back for Saturday'sceremony, but died in his sleep Friday night.

"Jim was gravely ill when he left his home, and he knew that hemight not return," Obama said. "But just as he did 65 years ago,he came anyway. May he now rest in peace with the boys he once bledwith, and may his family always find solace in the heroism heshowed here."

Joined by Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, andCanadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama stopped first at thegray granite visitors center and then at an overlook where theleaders talked at length with two D-Day veterans waiting at the topof the once-bloody bluffs.

The sunny sky, crashing waves, lush vegetation and pleasantbreezes created a scene of seaside tranquility at the spot oneD-Day veteran recalled as mostly "darkness and confusion."

"I lost a lot of pals on D-Day," said Norman Coleman ofManchester, England. He marked the day by visiting several otherburial grounds scattered around the region, where soldiers wereburied as they fell in pitched battles over 12 decisive weeks.

Julien Marchand, a 40-year-old carpenter, spontaneously embracedColeman in an outburst of gratitude on the streets of Caen, nearlyknocking over the elderly veteran. "Thank you, thank you, merci,"Marchand exclaimed.

The ceremony at Omaha Beach, on what is technically U.S. soil atColleville-sur-Mer, took place under an American flag flying from ametal pole hundreds of feet high. The crowd of thousands spread farback from the leaders' platform and colonnade engraved with thesewords: "This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is foreverhallowed by the ideals, the valor and the sacrifice."

With clusters of young people sprinkled among the graying headsand wheelchairs, the audience spilled down the path that cutbetween some of the nearly 10,000 perfectly aligned white crossesthat mark the graves of U.S. dead. A mother breast fed an infant onthe lawn. French adolescent girls whispered excitedly about thechance to see Obama.

Issac Phillips, 84, recalled having little idea what he wasgetting into in the dark early morning hours of June 6, 1944, as aprivate in the U.S. 22nd Infantry regiment who crossed the EnglishChannel and landed at nearby Utah Beach.

"The water was cold, the boat was going like this" -- his armsspiked up and down -- "and some of them fell in the water. We areall close together and we can't move very much at all. They say ifyou stay close together, you don't get seasick. You get seasickanyway."

Allied forces charged the shores of five beaches on France'snorthern coast, facing German land mines, machine guns and heavyartillery. Some 215,000 Allied soldiers, and roughly as manyGermans, were killed or wounded during D-Day and the ensuing threemonths before the Allies captured Normandy, opening a path towardParis that eventually took them to Germany and victory over theNazis.

Before Obama delivered his 16-minute address, the U.S.presidential seal was placed on the lectern.

"You remind us that our future is not shaped by mere chance orcircumstance," the president said to the gathered veterans. "Youcould have done only what was necessary to ensure your ownsurvival. But that's not what you did. That's not the story youtold on D-Day."

A 21-gun salute lent an acrid smell to the air that grew grayerand chillier as the ceremony ended. Taps played. A 12-plane flyoverof French, British and American jets boomed above.

There was a personal side to the wartime memories for Obama. Hementioned his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who came ashore at OmahaBeach six weeks after D-Day. Dunham's older brother, Ralph, hitOmaha on D-Day plus four. Another great uncle, Charles Payne,helped liberate a satellite prison of the Buchenwald concentrationcamp in 1945 and accompanied Obama to Normandy.

After the ceremony, Obama and his wife, Michelle, returned toParis to reunite with their daughters, Sasha and Malia, for afamily evening in the City of Light. They planned sightseeing onSunday before Obama returns to Washington from his trip, which alsotook him to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The first lady and the girlsplanned to remain in France until at least Monday.

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