In New York, a fight over a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero drew hundreds of protesters from both sides, many eyeing their opponents as people who had misappropriated the day's message.

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Ceremonies marked the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks Saturday in New York, Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa., on a day the familiar rituals of wreath-laying and speechmaking were joined by sign-waving demonstrations about America’s relationship with Islam.

The day began with mourning and finished with argument.

In New York, a fight over a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero drew hundreds of protesters from both sides, many eyeing their opponents as people who had misappropriated the day’s message.

And nine years after a band of al-Qaida terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people, President Obama’s speeches have come back to a theme that President George W. Bush was emphasizing in the weeks after the attacks: the importance of religious tolerance and respect for Islam.

Implicitly, Obama has also echoed Bush’s worry from that fearful period: the terrorists might still “win,” by causing overreactions that would threaten U.S. values.

“We will not give in to their hatred,” Obama said at a ceremony at the Pentagon honoring the 184 who died when the building was hit by a hijacked plane. “As Americans, we are not — and never will be — at war with Islam.”

“The highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most,” the president said. “To stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country, and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are.”

8:46 a.m. ceremony

Earlier in the day, in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero, a memorial ceremony paused for a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., the time the first hijacked jetliner struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Relatives of the victims and workers helping to build a memorial read the names of more than 2,700 dead.

Their unsteady voices were a reminder of the way the terrorist attacks have been commemorated: as upwellings of personal grief, undiluted by time.

Around the spot where they paid tribute, Ground Zero is being transformed. Just last week, officials hoisted a 70-foot piece of trade-center steel there and vowed to open the Sept. 11 memorial, with two waterfalls marking where the towers stood, by next year. At the northwest corner of the site, 1 World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, now rises 36 stories above ground. It is set to open in 2013 and be 1,776 feet tall, taller than the original trade center.

Assigned to read the names of the fallen, relatives of trade-center victims calmly made their way through their lists, then struggled, some looking skyward, as they addressed their lost loved ones.

“David, please know that we love you. We miss you desperately,” said Michael Brady, whose brother worked at Merrill Lynch. “We think about you and we pray for you every day.”

Sean Holohan, whose brother was killed, called out to the 343 firefighters who died: “All of you proved that day to the world that we are still one indivisible nation under God.”

Relatives also laid flowers in a reflecting pool and wrote individual messages along its edges.

“Let today never, ever be a national holiday. Let it not be a celebration,” said Karen Carroll, as she stood at the microphone to read names of the dead. Carroll lost her brother, firefighter Thomas Kuveikis. “It’s a day to be somber; it’s a day to reflect on all those thousands of people that died for us in the United States.”

Protesters gather

There were signs the private grief of the 9/11 attacks was passing into the more public realm of history, making it possible for people to argue in public about the day’s meaning, even on the day itself.

By 3 p.m., several hundred protesters had gathered into two city blocks near the proposed Park51 Islamic center and mosque, waving American flags and chanting “USA, USA” and “No mosque.” The “Rally of Remembrance” event featured speeches from conservative figures such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton — who spoke via video — and keynoter Geert Wilders, an anti-Islam Dutch politician.

“America, New York and Shariah are incompatible in New York,” Wilders said. Shariah is Islamic religious law. “New York stands for openness and tolerance. Suppose there was a place and it only allowed people of one persuasion within its walls. It would not be New York. It would be Mecca.”

Another speaker exhorted the Islamic center’s imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to abandon plans to build the center: “Imam Rauf, tear up those plans!”

Nearby, Maureen Santora — a schoolteacher from Astoria and the mother of firefighter Christopher Santora, who was killed on Sept. 11 — held a large banner that read “No mosque on our cemetery.”

She said it was a “difficult decision” for her family — her husband, four daughters and four grandchildren — to come to the rally on the ninth anniversary of her son’s death.

She made the point that Muslims have worshipped peacefully in her neighborhood and in Lower Manhattan for years.

“It has nothing to do with Muslims and nothing to do with mosques. It has to do with the closeness to Ground Zero. That’s the offensive point. It’s very simple. It’s not complicated,” Santora said.

A short distance away, a crowd of about 300 supporters of the Islamic cultural center marched to the site, about two blocks from Ground Zero. Chanting “unity now,” the marchers held signs that said “U.S. Tolerates All Religions” and “No to Racism and Anti-Muslim Bigotry.”

A city block separated the two sides, as well as a half-dozen mounted New York City policemen, gawkers and a man dressed as Uncle Sam waving flags.

A large group from Albany’s Muslim community came on a bus from the state capital, including Abdul Mohammad, 40, a Yemeni American who said he is disabled.

“I came because we have a right to build a mosque where we want,” he said. “This Islamic center is peaceful — and meant for the people, everyone in the community.”

American spirit

In Shanksville, Pa., first lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush marked the ninth anniversary with somber words atop a windswept hillside overlooking the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93, telling mourners that out of tragedy came a vivid and inspiring reminder of the American spirit.

“Nine years ago, in the skies above this field and in Washington and in New York City, we saw the worst of our enemy and the best of our nation,” Bush said. “We saw that there is evil in the world but good at the heart of our country. America was attacked, but the deepest belief of our democracy was vindicated.”

Obama spoke of service and sacrifice, telling the stories of those who hatched a bold plan to down a plane they knew had become a weapon.

“And to this day, they remind us — not just by how they gave their lives, but by how they lived their lives — that being a hero is not just a matter of fate, it’s a matter of choice,” she said.

About 110 relatives of Flight 93 victims gathered with the first ladies and then viewed the site from a hill, in the same spot where many stood nine years ago in the hours after the fateful crash watching state police line the ridge on horseback to salute. A bell tolled 40 times, for each victim, as relatives stepped up to a microphone and called the name of loved ones at 10:03 a.m., the time of the crash.

Work is under way on a final memorial, expected to be complete by next year, that will include a pathway tracking the final minutes of the flight and a memorial wall of names.

“We will never forget what they did above our skies; we will always remember them,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, a Democrat.

Former President George W. Bush issued a four-sentence statement on the anniversary. It read, in part: “We recall the many acts of heroism on that day, and we honor those who work tirelessly to prevent another attack. May God bless our great country and those who defend her.”

As all the ceremonies and protests began, at least one relative of a Sept. 11 victim stayed away.

Donna Marsh O’Connor — who lost her pregnant daughter Vanessa, 29, on that day nine years ago — said she couldn’t bear to attend the Ground Zero ceremony.

The debate over whether to build the Islamic center near Ground Zero has imbued the day with unwelcome bitterness and rancor, she said.

“This is the hardest anniversary since,” she said. “These are heartbreaking times. They’re painful. They are scary as hell.”

Post staff writers Michelle Boorstein, Nia-Malika Henderson, Donna St. George and Ernesto Londoño and The Associated Press contributed to this report.