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Obama: U.S. credibility on the line in Syria

President urges allies, lawmakers to support cruise-missile attack

By Peter Baker
New York Times
Sweden Obama
Frank Augstein - AP
US President Barack Obama gestures, during a press conference at Rosenbad, the seat of the Swedish government in Stockholm, Sweden, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. US President Obama is on a visit to Sweden, ahead of the G20 summit, held in St. Petersburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

STOCKHOLM President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that the confrontation with Syria over chemical weapons was not a personal test for him but for Congress, the United States and the world as he worked to strengthen support at home and abroad for a punitive strike.

Opening a three-day trip overseas at a delicate moment for his presidency, Obama challenged lawmakers and allies to stand behind his plans for a cruise missile attack on the government of President Bashar Assad in retaliation for what the Obama administration has concluded was a chemical attack that killed at least 1,400 people in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, last month.

“I didn’t set a red line,” Obama said during a news conference in Stockholm. “The world set a red line.”

He added, “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line.”

Obama laid blame for the Aug. 21 attack directly on Assad, whose government is known to have enormous stockpiles of banned chemical munitions including sarin gas, a nerve agent that U.S. intelligence has said was deployed in a rebel-held part of the Damascus suburbs.

U.S. intelligence has not disclosed any evidence that Assad ordered the use of sarin, but the White House has said he remains responsible as the leader of the country and its military.

“We believe very strongly with high confidence that in fact chemical weapons were used and that Mr. Assad was the source,” the president said.

Obama arrived in Stockholm on Wednesday morning before heading Thursday to St. Petersburg for a gathering of the Group of 20 nations hosted by President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin has opposed any retaliatory attack on Syria, calling such action a violation of international law. Putin repeated in an interview released Wednesday that he considered the U.S. assertions of culpability by Syrian authorities to be absurd.

‘Memories of Iraq’

Standing at Obama’s side, Sweden’s prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, urged waiting for a report from U.N. inspectors, who have sent samples from the scene of the attack to a Swedish laboratory, and said he preferred any action be supported by the Security Council.

“But I also understand the potential consequences of letting a violation like this go unanswered,” Reinfeldt said, in a nod to Obama’s position.

U.S. officials have dismissed the U.N. investigation because it is charged only with determining whether there was a chemical attack, which Washington considers undisputed, not the more contentious question of who was responsible. But Obama acknowledged that the mistaken intelligence about weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 haunts his current efforts.

“I’m very mindful that around the world and here in Europe in particular there are memories of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction accusations and people being concerned about how accurate this information is,” Obama said. “Keep in mind, I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq and am not interested in repeating mistakes basing decisions on false intelligence.”

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