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Obama takes helm of nation in crisis

BARACK Obama became the 44th US president yesterday, shattering American racial barriers as the first African American leader of the nation he promised to free from profound economic troubles and steer away from wars in two distant lands.

The 47-year-old Obama assumed power over a country longing for change after former President George W. Bush's eight divisive years in the White House, an era that witnessed the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the beginning of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and an economic collapse not seen since the 1930s Great Depression.

"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America ?? they will be met," Obama said in his first address to the nation as its new leader.

Speaking to a massive crowd that spread across the National Mall from the Capitol toward the Lincoln Memorial, Obama recalled the words of George Washington, America's first president, enjoining Americans against faint-heartedness "in this winter of our hardship."

"With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come," the new president said. "Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter, and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

Obama promised the world a new America that listens to all voices. But he vowed to spare nothing to keep America safe, addressing terrorist foes directly.

"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

And to the larger Muslim world, he vowed to "seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

In the hours before Obama took office, US authorities monitored a rush of intelligence leads during the largest security operation in presidential inauguration history, including a possible threat from an East Africa radical Islamic terrorist group.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials received information that people associated with a Somalia-based group, al-Shabaab, might try to travel to the US with plans to disrupt the inauguration, according to a joint FBI/Homeland Security bulletin issued on Monday night. The information had limited specificity and uncertain credibility, said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke.

There was an unprecedented amount of security yesterday, with thousands of law enforcement officers from 58 federal, state and local agencies working together.

Sirens keening, squad cars and utility vehicles swept along downtown streets even before dawn, racing to cordoned checkpoints as crowds gathered.

Hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even as many as 1 million, clogged the scene at the National Mall, cheering the dignitaries as they filed onto the inaugural stand at the Capitol building.


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