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World Leaders Unite to Honor D-Day Vets

With pride and tears for fallen comrades, Allied veterans joined world leaders in remembering the sacrifices of soldiers 60 years ago and the trans-Atlantic unity that overcame Adolf Hitler's tyranny in World War II (search).

Atop rocky cliffs over the town of Arromanches, President Bush and President Jacques Chirac of France used Sunday's glitzy commemoration of the Allied invasion on D-Day (search) — June 6, 1944 — to reinvigorate relations damaged by differences over the Iraq war.

Fighter jets roared overhead and a naval vessel fired a 21-cannon salute in a display of military might to mark the day the most powerful armada in history brought 156,000 soldiers ashore for a battle that turned the tide of the war.

Chirac, in a moving speech, praised the "young and daring" soldiers who died in Normandy or survived to tell their tales three generations later. -

"With respect for history, the soldiers, the suffering and the blood that was shed, we are celebrating together the victory of peace and democracy," he said.

Arromanches, near the code-named Gold Beach (search) where thousands of British soldiers came ashore, played host to some 20 world leaders and up to 6,000 veterans, their families and admirers at the ceremonies.

On a giant screen, organizers showed sepia-toned photos of Nazi concentration camps and rail cars carrying wartime Jews to evoke the evils of the Nazi regime the soldiers fought to topple. Drill teams marched to tunes played by military bands.

Some veterans wiped away tears during an elegant song and dance routine by black-clad performers on a hot asphalt tarmac under a searing sun.

The commemoration brought together heads of state or government, and former comrades-in-arms, from wartime allies including Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, Britain, Canada and the United States.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, which has become a close postwar ally of France, accepted Chirac's invitation to become the first German leader invited to D-Day ceremonies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, also the first representative for his country, sat next to First lady Laura Bush during the three-hour ceremony.

Putin's attendance marked a turnaround for Russia. Moscow, and many military historians, had long played down the significance of the D-Day landings, arguing earlier Nazi defeats in battles such as Kursk and Stalingrad had already fatally weakened the German Wehrmacht.

Notably absent from the grandiose speeches was talk of the Iraq war, which has driven perhaps the most significant wedge between the United States and several of its top European allies, especially France.

The remembrance put new light on the epochal undertaking that, while many nations were involved, was spearheaded by American forces. It also allowed France and the United States to return their focus to the historical bedrock of strong ties.

"France will never forget what it owes America, its steadfast friend and ally," Chirac said. "Like all the countries of Europe, France is keenly aware that the Atlantic Alliance, forged in adversity, remains in the face of new threats, a fundamental element to our collective security."

At an earlier U.S.-French ceremony at the Normandy American cemetery in Colleville, Bush also appeared to reach out to the French, saying "history reminds us that France was America's first friend."

The ceremonies offered the chance for veterans, some in wheelchairs draped with blankets or whose pockets hung heavy with medals, to reminisce about agonies of war and joys of victory.

Many of the veterans said their main concern was that younger generations will learn about the sacrifice of their brothers in arms buried in French soil.

Polish Gen. Michal Gutowski, 94, the oldest of 14 veterans whom Chirac decorated with the Legion of Honor — France's highest award — humbly said his thoughts turned to his fallen comrades.

"It was a great honor. But I'm not receiving it for myself, it's for the soldiers who were beside me back then," said Gutowski, whose regiment fought alongside Canadian troops in France soon after D-Day.

Others remembered grueling climbs up rocky bluffs in the face of incessant German machine-gun fire, seasickness-inducing rides in landing craft and the instant bloodshed once they landed on shore.

Young French women on one of three giant pavilions in Arromanches said they appreciated the lessons from veterans, adding they hope that political leaders will too.

"It's a happy day, but sad too," said Sophie Marie, 22, a nursing student in nearby Caen on hand to provide care for the veterans. "They have a message of peace — it's too bad that wars still go on."