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By Caren Bohan and Nancy Waitz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking on the eve of a major gay-rights march, told gay supporters on Saturday he would fight for their causes and renewed a pledge to end restrictions on their service in the U.S. military.
To a standing ovation at a dinner held by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group, Obama said he would "end 'don't ask, don't tell,' That's my commitment to you."
Obama, who was referring to the policy prohibiting openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military, was seeking to shore up his support among gays and lesbians who backed him strongly during last year's presidential campaign.
Many gay activists are frustrated he has not moved more quickly to carry out promises, such as overturning the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and repealing the Defence of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from forcing states to recognise gay marriage.
Activists plan to march in Washington on Sunday to urge action on those issues.
At the dinner, Obama acknowledged that work on those issues was "taking longer than you'd like" as the push to overhaul healthcare and dealing with the economic crisis dominate his domestic agenda.
But he promised "unwavering" support for broadening the rights of gays and lesbians and said he would not allow the issue to be sidetracked.
"Do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach," said Obama, who made history as the first African American president and compared the push for gay rights to the struggles in the 1960s to end discrimination against blacks.
"My expectation is that when you look back on these years, you will see a time when we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians, whether in the office or on the battlefield."
Obama touted his decision to extend some benefits to partners of gay federal employees and said he hopes to soon sign a bill that would broaden the definition of hate crimes to include attacks on people because of their sexual orientation.
The House of Representatives passed the bill last week and the Senate is expected to act soon.
Obama last week nominated an openly gay lawyer, David Huebner, to serve as his ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.
Lane Hudson, a blogger and activist who attended the Human Rights Campaign event, said while Obama's speech was well-received, it probably would not erase doubts about his commitment to fulfilling his campaign promises.
"It was the kind of feel-good speech we are used to from the president," Hudson said. "It lacked any specific details on fulfilling his promises and he failed to say anything new at all."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)