Obama seeking lawmakers' approval for Syria strike

WASHINGTON (AP) — Short on support at home

and allies abroad, President Barack Obama unexpectedly stepped back from

a missile

attack against Syria on Saturday and instead asked Congress to

support a strike punishing Bashar Assad's regime for the alleged

use of chemical weapons.

With Navy ships on standby in the

Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said he

had decided the United

States should take military action and that he believes that as

commander in chief, he has "the authority to carry out this

military action without specific congressional authorization."

At the same time, he said, "I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more

effective." His remarks were televised live in the United States as well as on Syrian state television with translation.

Congress is scheduled to return from a

summer vacation on Sept. 9, and in anticipation of the coming debate,

Obama challenged

lawmakers to consider "what message will we send if a dictator can

gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay

no price."

The president didn't say so, but his

strategy carries enormous risks to his and the nation's credibility,

which the administration

has argued forcefully is on the line in Syria. Obama long ago said

the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" that Assad

would not be allowed to cross with impunity.

Nor would the White House say what options would still be open to the president if he fails to win the backing of the House

and Senate for the military measures he has threatened.

Only this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when the House of Commons refused to support

his call for military action against Syria.

Halfway around the world, Syrians awoke Saturday to state television broadcasts of tanks, planes and other weapons of war,

and troops training, all to a soundtrack of martial music. Assad's government blames rebels in the Aug. 21 attack, and has

threatened retaliation if it is attacked.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was appealing to a Nobel Peace laureate rather than to a president, urged Obama

to reconsider. A group that monitors casualties in the long Syrian civil war challenged the United States to substantiate

its claim that 1,429 died in a chemical weapons attack, including more than 400 children.

By accident or design, the new timetable gives time for U.N. inspectors to receive lab results from the samples they took

during four days in Damascus, and to compile a final report. After leaving Syria overnight, the inspection team arrived in

Rotterdam a few hours before Obama spoke.

The group's leader was expected to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday.

Administration officials said Obama appeared

set on ordering a strike until Friday evening. After a long walk in

near 90-degree

temperatures around the White House grounds with Chief of Staff

Denis McDonough, the president told his aide he had changed

his mind.

These officials said Obama initially drew

pushback in a two-hour session attended by Vice President Joe Biden,

Defense Secretary

Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Klapper, CIA

Director John Brennan, national security adviser Susan Rice

and homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco. They declined to say

which of the participants had argued against Obama's proposal.

Whatever Congress ultimately decides, the developments marked a stunning turn.

France is Obama's only major foreign ally to

date for a strike, public polling shows support is lukewarm in the

United States,

and dozens of lawmakers in both parties have signed a letter

urging Obama not to act without their backing. Outside the gates

of the White House, the chants of protesters could be heard as the

president stepped to a podium set up in the Rose Garden.

Had he gone ahead with a military strike,

Obama would have become the first U.S. leader in three decades to attack

a foreign

nation without mustering broad international support or acting in

direct defense of Americans. Not since 1983, when President

Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the Caribbean island of

Grenada, has the U.S. been so alone in pursuing major lethal

military action beyond a few attacks responding to strikes or

threats against its citizens.

By day's end Saturday, the White House had sent Congress a draft of a resolution, crafted by the White House, to authorize

Obama to use military force.

The draft does not lay out a specific

timeline or course of military action, instead giving Obama approval to

use the military

as he determines "necessary and appropriate" to meet the objective

of preventing future chemical weapons use. But in an overture

to the limited scope of the strike Obama has said he's

considering, the draft affirms the administration's view that

ultimately,

only a political solution can resolve the crisis in Syria.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expected the House to consider the measure the week of Sept. 9. Senate Majority

Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he, too, will hold a vote no later than the week of Sept. 9, with public hearings starting

next week.

Republicans generally expressed satisfaction at Obama's decision to seek congressional support, and challenged him to make

his case to the public and lawmakers alike that American power should be used to punish Assad.

"We are glad the president is seeking

authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious,

substantive questions

being raised," Boehner and other House Republican leaders said in a

joint statement.

New York Republican Rep. Peter King was

among the dissenters, strongly so. "President Obama is abdicating his

responsibility

as commander in chief and undermining the authority of future

presidents," he said. "The president doesn't need 535 members

of Congress to enforce his own red line."

For now, it appeared that the administration's effort at persuasion was already well underway.

The administration plunged into a series of

weekend briefings for lawmakers, both classified and unclassified, and

Obama challenged

lawmakers to consider "what message will we send to a dictator" if

he is allowed to kill hundreds of children with chemical

weapons without suffering any retaliation.

At the same time, a senior State Department official said Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Syrian Opposition Coalition

President Ahmed Assi al-Jarba to underscore Obama's commitment to holding the Assad government accountable for the Aug. 21

attack.

Obama said Friday he was considering

"limited and narrow" steps to punish Assad, adding that U.S. national

security interests

were at stake. He pledged no U.S. combat troops on the ground in

Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian

lives.

In Syria, some rebels expressed unhappiness with the president, one rebel commander said he did not consider Obama's decision

to be a retreat. "On the contrary, he will get the approval for congress and then the military action will have additional

credibility," said Qassem Saadeddine.

"Just because the strike was delayed by few days doesn't mean it's not going to happen," he said.

With Obama struggling to gain international

backing for a strike, Putin urged him to reconsider his plans. "We have

to remember

what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United

States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different

regions of the world, said Putin, a strong Assad ally. "Did this

resolve even one problem?"

Even the administration's casualty estimate was grist for controversy.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502

deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organization, said he was not contacted by U.S. officials about his efforts to collect

information about the death toll in the Aug. 21 attacks.

"America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda," he said, and urged the Obama administration

to release the information its estimate is based on.