NEW YORK - Americans rang church bells, remembered the nearly 3,000 dead and gathered to pray on Saturday to mark the third anniversary of the devastating September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Ceremonies coloured by grief and politics were held nationwide. At the site of the fallen World Trade Centre towers in New York, parents and grandparents of victims solemnly read victims' names before a large crowd, adding personal comments or blowing kisses skyward.

"We love you more today than yesterday, and we will love you more tomorrow than today," one mother said.


The reading of names took more than two and a half hours.

Ceremonies were smaller and more subdued than those of the first two years since the attacks, and some speakers used the day, within two months of the November 2 presidential election, to make political points.

In Washington, President George W Bush led a national moment of silence and used his weekly radio address to mark the day.

"Three years ago, the struggle of good against evil was compressed into a single morning," he said, describing the 102 minutes in which hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

In Boston, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee seeking to replace Bush in the White House, called for Americans to come together to fight terrorism.

"While September 11 was the worst day we have ever seen, it brought out the best in all of us," he said. "And we must always remember that we will only defeat those who sought to destroy us by standing together as one America."

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discussed the al Qaeda hijackers and praised Bush at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery that included a moment of silence at 9.37am local time, three years after American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.

"They wanted America to retreat from the world, so that they could impose their ideology of oppression and of hatred. They thought they could strike us with impunity and that we would acquiesce," he said. "But the enemies have underestimated our country, they failed to understand the character of our people, and they misread our commander-in-chief."

Tom Ridge, Secretary of Homeland Security, spoke in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh, where church bells rang to mark the time the fourth plane crashed.

In Boston, the brother of John Ogonowski, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, the first to hit the World Trade Centre, said he could hardly believe three years had passed.

"When I close my eyes, I can vividly recall the billowing black smoke coming from Tower One against that perfect blue sky," Jim Ogonowski said at a memorial ceremony. "I can see the flames of hell as that second aircraft hit the second tower.

In New York, Susan Rosenblum, whose son Joshua died in the World Trade Centre, spoke out against war.

"We don't want anyone to die because our children and loved ones were killed on 9/11," she said. "It is my belief that the war in Iraq is just politically sanctioned terrorism."

The reading of victims' names at the World Trade Centre has become a tradition. Last year, children read the long list. On the first anniversary, it was read by relatives, politicians and other public figures.

Many in the crowd carried photographs and flowers down into "Ground Zero," the World Trade Centre site, where some floated blossoms in two small reflecting pools designed to symbolize the footprints of the two fallen 110-story towers.

But in a sign of the time that has passed, a new office building was under construction at one side of the site, replacing one of several destroyed three years ago.

Plans for a memorial in downtown Manhattan are mired in legal wrangling and dissension among victims' relatives over what would be appropriate.