WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Saturday backed away from an imminent military strike against Syria to seek the approval of the U.S. Congress, in a decision that likely delays U.S. action for at least 10 days.
Obama, in a stern statement from the White House Rose Garden, said he had authorized the use of military force to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack August 21 that U.S. officials say killed 1,429 people. Military assets to carry out a strike are in place and ready to move on his order, he said.
But in an acknowledgement of protests from U.S. lawmakers and concerns from war-weary Americans, Obama added an important caveat: he wants Congress to approve.
"We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual," he said.
Congress is in recess and not scheduled to return to work until September 9. It is unclear which way any vote would go.
"Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move as one nation," Obama said.
Obama's decision was a high-stakes gamble that he can gain approval from Congress for a limited strike against Syria to safeguard an international ban on chemical weapons usage, defend U.S. national security interests and protect regional allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
"I have long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people," Obama said.
His decision was also a significant shift away from what was perceived to be preparations for a speedy strike against Syrian targets. He had made clear he was prepared to act unilaterally after the British parliament refused to go along with American plans.
Protracted and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left Americans reluctant to get involved in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Most Americans do not want the United States to intervene in Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken this week showed only 20 percent believe the United States should take action, but that was up from 9 percent last week.
A debate has raged for days among members of the U.S. Congress over whether, or how quickly, Obama should take action.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, welcomed the move, which he said is a response to "serious, substantive questions" being raised about the ability of the president to launch a military move on his own.
"In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people," he said.
Obama, who only on Friday had said nobody was more war-weary than he is, has nonetheless been appalled by searing video images of Syrians who fell under the chemical weapons onslaught.
In his Saturday speech, he left no doubt that he feels action must be taken and is confident that a strike would deter this kind of behavior and degrade Syria's ability to carry out similar attacks.
But his decision may well lead to criticism that he conceivably is stepping away again from a "red line" he established against Syrian use of chemical weapons.
"President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander in chief and undermining the authority of future presidents. The president does not need Congress to authorize a strike on Syria," said Republican Representative Peter King.
Obama's decision was announced after he met his national security team at the White House. Top aides were to brief senators later in the day and members of the House of Representatives are to receive a classified briefing from administration officials on Sunday.
The objective is to show the intelligence U.S. officials say is solid proof that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad launched a large chemical weapons assault in Damascus suburbs that left among the dead 426 children.
Obama has broad legal powers to take military action, and he insisted he felt he had the authority to launch a strike on his own. Now, he has to launch a major effort to convince Congress.
"Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?" he said.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Douwe Miedema; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jackie Frank