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Concert kicks off Obama's inauguration

Tens of thousands of people flocked to Washington's National Mall park on Sunday to begin celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama with a two-hour concert while hoping to catch a glimpse of the nation's next president.

world Updated: Jan 19, 2009 11:40 IST

Tens of thousands of people flocked to Washington's National Mall park on Sunday to begin celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama with a two-hour concert while hoping to catch a glimpse of the nation's next president.

The star-studded cast for the afternoon show in freezing temperatures and cloudy skies included Beyonce, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder, but there was little doubt about the real star of the day.

Obama, 47, will be sworn in on Tuesday as the 44th president - and the first African American one - of the United States, but the party is getting off to an early start on Sunday afternoon with the concert at the Lincoln Memorial, the first of a series of events leading up to the presidential oath of office on the Capitol steps on Tuesday.

"I drove 18 hours to be in Washington for this historical event and wouldn't miss it for anything because I didn't think this would happen in my lifetime," said Maxine Anderson, 45, an African American from New Orleans, Louisiana accompanied by her three sisters.

The revellers braving the cold weather chanting and hollering slogans and cheering Obama's message of hope and change at a time when the country is facing its worst economic crisis in decades and a long list of challenges abroad, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

People started gathering early on Sunday morning along the reflective pools at the footsteps of the monument that enshrines Abraham Lincoln, the president who freed the slaves, and the spot where Martin Luther King Jr gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. The Mall was filled with jumbotron televisions, banners and news media booths, as well hundreds of blue and green portable toilets.

Euan Collins, a British tourist who arrived from his native Britain on Saturday night to join in on the festivities. He was among the many who came early to stake out their spots ahead of the concert.

"This is the American election, which has certainly touched Britain," Collins, 28, said. "And you know I'm also in Washington for this bloody huge party."

Earlier, Obama and vice president-elect Joe Biden placed a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, after arriving on Saturday night following a train tour of stops to engage supporters in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The concert foreshadows the inauguration ceremony at the Capitol building, which is expected to draw at least two million onlookers amid unprecedented security that was already being felt around Washington days ahead. But there were plenty at the Mall on Sunday ready to celebrate.

Delores Hardy, 68, of New Jersey, wanted to come so she could bring Obama's message of hope back to her job at a detention facility for juvenile delinquents.

"Barack Obama really inspires me and enables me to bring hope to the kids at my centre," she said. "I'm in Washington to see the fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream and carry this message to my kids."

Alison Beck, a 34-year-old teacher who works in Britain, said she regretted not being in her native country on election night November 4, so she decided to make it back for the inauguration.

"Being out of the country for the election broke my heart and the inauguration gave me a reason to come home," she said.

But not everyone was so optimistic about Obama future despite the world's captivation with Obama, his wife Michelle and two young daughters Malia and Sasha.

"Obama's been set up to fail," said 43-year-old Brazilian Raoul Cota of the daunting challenges the president-elect will face when he moves into the White House and the frenzy surrounding his election begins to fade. "After Tuesday, once the love dies, he and the American people will face very real problems."

Obama and his top aides have spent the two month since the election trying to build confidence with the public and carry the momentum from the election to the Oval Office and begin quickly on tackling the recession that wiped out nearly two million jobs last year.

Obama wants lawmakers to authorize more than $800 billion in spending on infrastructure and other projects he says can create up to three million jobs and pull the economy out of the crisis.

"Getting this economy moving again is absolutely paramount," David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, said on CNN. "And so he is going to continue to work on that."

Obama will also be trying to fulfil a campaign promise to end the war in Iraq and intensify US efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but will also be dealing with a Middle East peace process shattered after three weeks of fighting between Israel and Palestinian Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israel on Saturday declared a unilateral ceasefire in the conflict that has taken more than 1,000 Palestinian lives. Hamas announced a one-week truce on Sunday.

Obama has mostly kept quiet on the fighting, not wanting to break of pledge of "one president at a time" by weighting into international issues while President George W Bush is still in office.

"All of us are hopeful that a cessation of violence will hold," Axelrod said, adding Obama will move quickly to diplomatically address international challenges.

"He intends to engage early and aggressively with diplomacy all over the world," Axelrod said on CNN.

The free two-hour concert on Sunday afternoon will formally welcome Obama to Washington. On Monday, Obama, along with former secretary of state Colin Powell, will be issuing a national "call to service."

During the train tour, Obama said the challenges he's facing - the falling economy, two wars and global warming - were "different, but severe in their own right," calling on the country to unite in confronting the problems.

"The events of the next several days are not simply about the inauguration of an American president," Obama said on Saturday. "They will be a celebration of the American people."

First Published: Jan 19, 2009 11:24 IST