NEW YORK - President George W Bush today made a pilgrimage to New York's Ground Zero on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a milestone that has sharpened an election-year debate over whether America is safer.
Under gray skies, Bush and his wife Laura, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and state governor George Pataki walked together into the flag-bedecked site where the twin World Trade Centre towers had stood.
The somber-looking Bushes laid wreaths into two dark pools of water in the footprints of the north and south towers, which collapsed in 2001 after two hijacked airplanes smashed into them, and bowed their heads in silence. Bagpipes played "America the Beautiful."
At a prayer service at nearby Trinity Church-St Paul's Chapel, Bush later sat among mourners that included Arlene Howard, who in 2001 gave Bush the badge of her son George, a Port Authority Police officer killed on September 11.
The fifth anniversary, coming two months ahead of elections in which Democrats hope to wrest control of Congress from Bush's Republicans, has triggered a partisan battle over whether the country is vulnerable to a second September 11 and whether the Iraq war is a distraction from efforts to eliminate al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Outside the World Trade Centre site, several dozen people held up banners and shouted, "Arrest Bush Now," "Bring the Troops Home" and "Stop Exploiting 9/11."
"This visit is another political ploy for Bush to try to sound like he is strong on security when our country is much less safe," said 77-year-old protesters Ann Muyskens.
Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials sought on Sunday to promote what they say is progress in protecting America against another attack.
Democrats countered the administration had used the attacks for political gain, underlining the bitter divisions that have emerged since the attacks on New York and Washington killed nearly 3,000 people and united the nation in grief.
Cheney told NBC's "Meet the Press" that five years with no repeat attacks in the United States proved the government had succeeded in disrupting al Qaeda.
"We've done a helluva job here at home in terms of homeland security," Cheney said.
Bush's approval ratings soared and his presidency was altered forever after he stood in the ruins of the World Trade Centre days after the 2001 attacks and sought to rally the country by shouting into a bullhorn.
But his approval ratings slid as US casualties in Iraq rose, and many Americans now have doubts over his security policies. ABC News said a poll it conducted found the number of Americans who think the country is safer now than four years ago had dropped to 52 per cent from 88 per cent previously.
Democrats charge the Iraq war has sucked away billions of dollars that could have helped improve domestic security.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Bush had used the attacks for political gain ahead of November elections in which Democrats see a good chance to take control of one or both chambers of the US Congress from Republicans.
"They think they can't win the elections unless they talk about terrorism all the time," he said on Fox News, adding the administration had got bogged down in Iraq when it should have been going "full-scale" after bin Laden.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that the trail for bin Laden had gone "stone cold" and that US commandos looking for him have not had a credible lead on his whereabouts in more than two years.
In a two-day tour of all three September 11 crash sites - the World Trade Centre, Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed - Bush will strive to put aside partisan acrimony, if only temporarily.
He will save his formal remarks for a televised Oval Office address on Monday night.