U.S.: 'Common sense' proves Assad guilt

But Obama aide says no clear link of leader to gas

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WASHINGTON -- The White House asserted Sunday that a "common-sense test" dictates that the Syrian government is responsible for a chemical weapons attack that President Barack Obama says demands a U.S. military response.

But Mr. Obama's top aide says the administration lacks "irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence" that skeptical Americans, including lawmakers who will start voting on military action this week, are seeking.

"This is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way," said White House chief of staff Denis McDonough during his five-network public relations blitz Sunday to build support for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The common-sense test says he is responsible for this. He should be held to account," Mr. McDonough said of the Syrian leader who for two years has resisted calls from inside and outside his country to step down.

Asked in another interview about doubt, Mr. McDonough was direct: "No question in my mind."

Mr. McDonough spoke with ABC's "This Week," CBS's "Face the Nation," NBC's "Meet the Press," CNN's "State of the Union" and "Fox News Sunday."

The U.S., citing intelligence reports, says the lethal nerve agent sarin was used in an Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus, and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children.

The number is higher than that, said Khalid Saleh, head of the press office at the anti-Assad Syrian Coalition who was in Washington to lobby lawmakers to authorize the strikes. Some of those involved in the attacks later died in their homes and opposition leaders were weighing releasing a full list of names of the dead.

But Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.

The actual tally of those killed by chemical weapons is scant compared to the sum of all killed in the upheaval: more than 100,000, according to the United Nations.

The Obama administration picked up new international endorsements Sunday for a military strike against Syria as Mr. Assad denied his government had used chemical weapons and warned the American people not to get involved in another Middle Eastern war.

After a meeting in Paris with Arab foreign ministers, Secretary of State John Kerry said Saudi Arabia backed "the strike" that Mr. Obama is weighing to punish Syria for the chemical attack.

Qatar's foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, speaking at a news conference with Mr. Kerry, called for foreign intervention "to protect the Syrian people."

Qatar also agreed to join a statement, signed by 11 U.S. allies who attended last week's Group of 20 summit in Russia, condemning the use of chemical weapons.

In an interview Sunday, Mr. Assad told U.S. journalist Charlie Rose that there is not conclusive evidence about who is to blame for the chemical weapons attacks and again suggested the rebels were responsible. From Beirut, Mr. Rose described his interview, which is to be released today on the CBS morning program that Mr. Rose hosts, with the full interview airing later in the day on Mr. Rose's PBS program.

Asked about Mr. Assad's claims there is no evidence he used the weapons, Mr. Kerry told reporters in London later Sunday: "The evidence speaks for itself."

At the same time, Mr. Obama has planned his own public relations effort. He has scheduled six network interviews today and then a prime time speech to the nation from the White House on Tuesday, the eve of the first votes in Congress.

Sunday night, Mr. Obama dropped in on a dinner held by Vice President Joe Biden for Republican senators. Mr. Obama will meet with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, a Senate aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the meeting before its official announcement.

Mr. Obama faces a tough audience on Capitol Hill. A survey by The Associated Press shows that House members who are staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against Mr. Obama's plan for a military strike by more than a 6-1 margin.


The Washington Post contributed.


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