While Obama long has been wary of U.S. military involvement in the conflict, the administration on Friday forcefully made its case for action. It accused the Assad regime of carrying out what it says was a chemical attack on Aug. 21 that killed at least 1,429 people — far more than previous estimates — including more than 400 children.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the main groups monitoring casualties in Syria, said Saturday it has only been able to confirm 502 deaths, identifying victims by name.
Its list is based on interviews with hospital officials and activists in the affected areas, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
The Britain-based group, which draws its information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, urged the Obama administration to release the information its far higher death toll is based on.
Obama has said he has a strong preference for multilateral action, but France is so far his only major public ally.
The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting for Sunday, two days earlier than initially planned, but it appeared unlikely to come out unanimously in support of military action against Syria. The league condemned the Aug. 21 attack in a previous meeting, but stopped short of endorsing military action, with Egypt vehemently opposed.
The U.S. already has warships in place in the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Syria's coastal waters. The vessels are armed with cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can strike distant targets without need of air cover or troops on the ground.
The Syrian government dismissed the administration's claims as "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 television late Friday 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."
In Damascus, residents braced themselves in anticipation of strikes.
"We are anticipating it starting tonight, since the inspectors have left, but we don't really know," said Nour, who lives on the outskirts of Damascus.
"Just in case, we stocked up on some water and food. Our building has a basement that we can use as a shelter. The building supervisor started preparing it a couple of days ago, he cleaned it and we put some pillows, blankets, water and a first aid kit with basic medications," said the 23-year-old pharmacy student. She gave only her first name for security reasons.
Syrian state TV on Saturday morning broadcast footage of Syrian soldiers training, fighter jets soaring in the sky and tanks firing at unseen targets, all to the backdrop of martial music. The potential U.S. military strike dominated the station's morning talk shows.
Obama met with his national security aides at the White House on Friday and then with diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he has not yet made a final decision on punitive strikes.
But the administration did nothing to discourage the predictions that action was imminent. That impression was heightened both by sharply 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.
In his remarks, 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."
The U.S. assessment did not explain its unexpectedly large count of 1,429 deaths, far in excess of an estimate from Doctors Without Borders from earlier this week that put the toll at 355. 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.
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