Syrians bracing for possible US strike

WASHINGTON (AP) — Edging toward a punitive strike against Syria, President Barack Obama said Friday he is weighing "limited

and narrow" action as the administration bluntly accused Bashar Assad's government of launching a chemical weapons attack

that killed at least 1,429 people — far more than previous estimates — including more than 400 children.

No "boots on the ground," Obama said, seeking to reassure Americans weary after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With France as his only major public ally, Obama told reporters he has a strong preference for multilateral action. He added,

"Frankly, part of the challenge we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to

do it."

Halfway around the world, U.S. warships were

in place in the Mediterranean Sea. They carried cruise missiles, long a

first-line

weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target

hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops

on the ground.

In what appeared increasingly like the pre-attack endgame, U.N. personnel dispatched to Syria carried out a fourth and final

day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in last week's attack. The international contingent

arranged to depart on Saturday and head to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected.

Video said to be taken at the scene shows victims writhing in pain, twitching and exhibiting other symptoms associated with

exposure to nerve agents. The videos distributed by activists to support their claims of a chemical attack were consistent

with Associated Press reporting of shelling in the suburbs of Damascus at the time, though it was not known if the victims

had died from a poisonous gas attack.

The Syrian government said administration claims were "flagrant lies" akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before

the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said

that "under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds

of innocent Syrian civilians."

Residents of Damascus stocked up on food and

other necessities in anticipation of strikes, with no evident sign of

panic.

One man, 42-year-old Talal Dowayih, said: "I am not afraid from

the Western threats to Syria; they created the chemical issue

as a pretext for intervention, and they are trying to hit Syria

for the sake of Israel."

Obama met with his national security aides at the White House and then with diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he has

not yet made a final decision on a response to the attack.

But the administration did nothing to

discourage the predictions that he would act — and soon. It was an

impression heightened

both by strongly worded remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry

and the release of an unclassified intelligence assessment

that cited "high confidence" that the Syrian government carried

out the attack.

In addition to the dead, the assessment

reported that about 3,600 patients "displaying symptoms consistent with

nerve agent

exposure" were seen at Damascus-area hospitals after the attack.

To that, Kerry added that "a senior regime official who knew

about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the

regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid they

would be discovered." He added for emphasis: "We know this."

The assessment did not explain its unexpectedly large casualty count, far in excess of an estimate from Doctors Without Borders.

Not surprisingly — given the nature of the disclosure — it also did not say expressly how the United States knew what one

Syrian official had allegedly said to another.

Mindful of public opinion, Kerry urged

Americans to read the four-page assessment for themselves. He referred

to Iraq — when

Bush administration assurances that weapons of mass destruction

were present proved false, and a U.S. invasion led to a long,

deadly war. Kerry said this time it will be different.

"We will not repeat that moment," he said.

Citing an imperative to act, the nation's

top diplomat said "it is directly related to our credibility and whether

countries

still believe the United States when it says something. They are

watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then

maybe they, too, can put the world at greater risk."

The president said firmly that the attack "threatens our national security interest by violating well-established international

norms."

While Obama was having trouble enlisting foreign support, French President Francois Hollande was an exception. The two men

spoke by phone, then Hollande issued a statement saying they had "agreed that the international community cannot tolerate

the use of chemical weapons, that it must hold the Syrian regime responsible and send a strong message to denounce the use

of (such) arms."

The day's events produced sharply differing responses from members of Congress — and that was just the Republicans.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey

Graham of South Carolina said Obama needed to go further than he seems

planning.

"The goal of military action should be to shift the balance of

power on the battlefield against Assad and his forces," they

said in a statement.

But a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, Brendan Buck, said if the president believes in a military response to Syria,

"it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any

potential action."

The looming confrontation is the latest

outgrowth of a civil war in which Assad has tenaciously — and brutally —

clung to

power. An estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed in more

than two years, many of them from attacks by the Syrian government

on its own citizens.

Obama has long been wary of U.S. military

involvement in the struggle, as he has been with turbulent events

elsewhere during

the so-called Arab Spring. In this case, reluctance stems in part

from recognition that while Assad has ties to Iran and the

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the rebels seeking to topple

him have connections with al-Qaida terrorist groups.

Still, Obama declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a "red line" that Assad should

not cross. And Obama approved the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels after an earlier reported

chemical weapons attack, although there is little sign that the equipment has arrived.

With memories of the long Iraq war still fresh, the political crosscurrents have been intense both domestically and overseas.

Dozens of lawmakers, most of them

Republican, have signed a letter saying Obama should not take military

action without congressional

approval, and top leaders of both political parties are urging the

president to consult more closely with Congress before

giving an order to launch hostilities.

Despite the urgings, there has been little

or no discussion about calling Congress back into session to debate the

issue.

Lawmakers have been on a summer break for nearly a month, and are

not due to return to the Capitol until Sept. 9. Obama has

not sought a vote of congressional approval for any military

action. Neither Republican nor Democratic congressional leaders

have challenged his authority to act or sought to have lawmakers

called into session before he does.

Senior White House, State Department,

Pentagon and intelligence officials met for an hour and half Friday with

more than a

dozen senators who serve on the Foreign Relations and Armed

Services committees, said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. He described

the meeting as "open and constructive."

Obama's efforts to put together an international coalition to support military action have been more down than up.

Hollande has endorsed punitive strikes, and told the newspaper Le Monde that the "chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and

must not remain unpunished."

But British Prime Minister David Cameron's

attempt to win a vote of approval in Parliament for military action

ended in ignominious

defeat on Thursday. American attempts to secure backing at the

United Nations have been blocked by Russia, long an ally of

Syria.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged a delay in any military action until the inspectors can present their findings

to U.N. member states and the Security Council.