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The United States is celebrating its Independence Day holiday Thursday with traditional fireworks displays, gatherings of family and friends in communities across the nation, and an unconventional address by President Donald Trump.

The Fourth of July festivities commemorate America's declaration of independence from Britain in 1776. In the nation's capital, Washington, the holiday attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the National Mall for a concert and massive fireworks display.

This year, Trump announced the addition of the "Salute to America" event to highlight U.S. military power, featuring his speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

"It will be the show of a lifetime!" he tweeted Wednesday.

As the country's 243rd celebration of its freedom dawned on Thursday, Trump wished Americans a "HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!"

"People are coming from far and wide to join us today and tonight," he said, "for what is turning out to be one of the biggest celebrations in the history of our Country, SALUTE TO AMERICA, an all day event at the Lincoln Memorial, culminating with large scale flyovers of the most modern and advanced aircraft anywhere in the World."

The Defense Department confirmed Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the nation's highest-ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, have accepted the president's invitation for Thursday's festivities.

Other top-ranking defense officials, including the acting undersecretary of the Army, the secretary of the Navy, the acting secretary of the Air Force, the deputy commander of the Marine Corps Development Command and the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard will also attend.

In addition, the Defense Department said the White House has provided 5,000 tickets to the event for other military personnel and their families.

Traditionally, U.S. presidents have kept a low profile during the Independence Day celebrations and Trump's critics have expressed concern that he will turn the event into a campaign-style rally as he prepares for his re-election bid.

There have also been questions about the actual costs of adding the military hardware and troops as part of the celebration.

White House officials have countered that Trump will avoid politics and that the rally will be purely patriotic.

Trump tweeted Wednesday that the cost "will be very little compared to what it is worth."

Since Trump took office, critics, including Democratic lawmakers in Congress, have denounced the president for using the U.S. military and military venues as political props.

"This spectacle is not a celebration of America and our values, it's a shoddy ego boost for a national embarrassment of a president," Rep. Mark Takano, chairman of House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, wrote on Twitter.

"America's birthday is supposed to be for all Americans and not a partisan event for a particular president or particular party, which is what the president's actions are attempting to turn it into," said Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit monitoring government ethics and accountability.

VOA has reached out to Republican lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee for reaction.

But Anita McBride, who served in previous Republican presidential administrations, said concerns are likely overblown.

"There are more important things that need attention than changing a venue and program for the celebrations," said McBride, now with American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "I am not opposed to any president changing the location or program for Fourth of July celebrations."

Zimbabwe Passport

MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe has run out of passports and vehicle registration number plates, forcing citizens to wait for long periods to get them - yet another sign of a desperate shortage of U.S. dollars in the southern African nation.

A hoped-for economic turnaround under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over from Robert Mugabe after a 2017 coup, is yet to materialise. Instead, Zimbabweans are enduring shortages of U.S. dollars, fuel, bread and 15-hour power cuts.

Last week, the government renamed its interim currency, the RTGS dollar, the Zimbabwe dollar and made it the country’s sole legal tender. That ended a decade of dollarisation and took another step towards relaunching a fully-fledged currency.

At the passport office in Harare early on Wednesday, hundreds of people huddled in the morning winter cold after arriving as early as 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) to queue to apply for passports. They were told to check their documents in 2022.

That is because a special paper and ink used to make passports has to be imported but there is no foreign currency.

Bothwell Mhashu, one of those queueing, said he wanted to escape the economic troubles at home and join his elder brother in Namibia. He applied for a passport in June 2018 and was supposed to get his document after three months.

“They just told me that my passport is not ready, I have to check again in August. This is not fair,” a despondent Mhashu said as he left the passport office.

In 2008, Zimbabweans slept at the passport office to be first in line to apply as an economic crisis and hyperinflation wrecked the country’s currency under Mugabe.

An ordinary passport costs 53 Zimbabwe dollars ($6.32) while ZW$318 is required for an emergency 24-hour document. No emergency passports are being issued except for a few senior officials.

Registrar General Clemence Masango declined to comment when contacted by Reuters on Wednesday.

But officials at the registrar general’s office said there were plans to print passports locally at central bank-owned Fidelity Printers and Refiners to clear a backlog of more than 50,000 applications.

That is, if they can import the equipment needed.

At the vehicle registry in central Harare, officials told motorists that they were not sure when number plates would be available because the department is still waiting for foreign currency from the central bank to pay a German supplier.

“We don’t know when we will have number plates, maybe in September,” said a registry official who declined to be named.

Transport Minister Joel Matiza said he could not immediately comment.

Soaring inflation and shortages are reminding Zimbabweans of the dark days under Mugabe, but Mnangagwa’s government says this is the pain of reform that will ultimately revive the economy.

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