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Thousands protest in Chicago; Mostly peaceful effort targets NATO summit

CHICAGO -- Thousands of protesters marched through downtown Chicago on Sunday in one of the city's largest demonstrations in years, airing grievances about war, climate change and a wide range of other issues as world leaders assembled for a NATO summit.

The protest, which stirred worries about violence in the streets, was largely peaceful until the end, when a small group of demonstrators clashed with a line of police who tried to keep them from the lakeside convention center where President Obama is hosting the gathering.

The protesters tried to move east toward McCormick Place, with some hurling sticks and bottles at police. Officers responded by swinging their batons. The two sides were locked in a standoff for nearly two hours, with police blocking the protesters' path and the crowd refusing to leave. Some protesters had blood streaming down their faces.

Authorities were seen making arrests one by one and leading individual demonstrators away in handcuffs.

After the clash near McCormick Place, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a news conference that the protests of the NATO summit resulted in 45 people being arrested and four officers suffering injuries -- one from a stab wound in the leg. Those numbers seemed certain to rise as new clashes continued to erupt.

Inside the convention center, Obama and NATO allies declared Sunday that the end of the long and unpopular Afghanistan war is in sight even as they struggled to hold their fighting force together in the face of dwindling patience and shaky unity.

Obama spoke of a post-2014 world when "the Afghan war as we understand it is over." Until then, though, remaining U.S. and allied troops face the continued likelihood of fierce combat.

Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, offered a stern warning Sunday that the plan to give Afghan forces the lead in fighting next summer won't take coalition troops out of harm's way. "It doesn't mean that we won't be fighting," Allen said.

The fate of the war is both the center of this summit and a topic no one is celebrating as a mission accomplished. The alliance already has one foot out the Afghanistan door, Obama has his ear attuned to the politics of an economy-driven presidential election year, and other allies are pinching pennies in a European debt crisis.

As NATO powers and other nations contributing to the war effort gathered, the alliance's top officer, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, asserted that "there will be no rush for the exits" in Afghanistan. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged," he said.

In fact, the strategy has shifted many times over the course of more than 10 years of war, and the goal narrowed to objectives focused on the long-term security of the mostly Western nations fighting there. The timetable has also moved, despite the overall commitment to keep foreign forces in Afghanistan into 2014.

Tension over newly elected French President Francois Hollande's pledge to end his country's combat mission two years early infused the meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointedly cited the credo of the allies in the Afghanistan war, "in together, out together," and her foreign minister cautioned against a "withdrawal competition" by coalition countries.

Hollande said he was being pragmatic in keeping a campaign pledge to pull combat troops this year, but this still would "let the alliance continue to work."

While France's posture rattled the leaders, Allen betrayed no concern about the coalition's common purpose coming unglued. "The mantra of this particular mission has been in together, out together," he said. "And I'm not seeing, frankly, many voices being raised that would oppose that."

Obama warned of hard days ahead. Still, he said NATO envisions a decade of transformation after 2014, with the United States still contributing money and some residual forces but being out of the war itself. The alliance was sealing plans Sunday and today to shift foreign forces off the front lines next year to put Afghan troops up front.

The shift to Afghan forces, despite their uneven performance under U.S. and other outside tutelage so far, is in large part a response to plummeting public support for the war in Europe and the United States, contributors of most of the international troops now fighting the Taliban-led insurgency.

No other nations have announced plans to follow France and remove troops early. More such shifts appear likely, however, as each country eyes the clock and its own tight pocketbook. Though the 130,000-member fighting force -- dominated by 98,000 U.S. troops -- could absorb combat withdrawals by other partners in the Afghan coalition, alliance leaders are struggling to maintain the status quo.

Outside the summit, Esther Westlake, a recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University, marveled at the size of the crowd protesting NATO's presence. She said she had been involved in antiwar marches before the war in Iraq in Chicago, but she said she had never seen one this big.

"It's crazy. There's so many people here," she said. "Having NATO in town is kind of exciting."

But the march lacked the size and single message that shaped the last major protest moment in Chicago, when nearly half a million people filled the city's downtown in 2006 to protest making it a felony to be an illegal immigrant.

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