WASHINGTON - 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 Aug. 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 Sept. 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.
New Hampshire's delegation to Congress praised Obama's decision to seek congressional approval before any military action against Syria.
"I am glad the President has decided to seek congressional support for military action in Syria," U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a statement. "Our nation is stronger when the President has bipartisan congressional support for actions he takes as commander in chief. In the coming days, it's important that the President continue to make his case to the American people as to how it is in our national security interests to take military action in Syria."
U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., said Congress should cut its recess short to consider a response to Syria's use of chemical weapons.
"The President is right to come to Congress and seek a vote over military action in Syria," she said. "He owes it to the American people, and members of Congress owe it to their constituents, to debate this issue. Congress should return to Washington immediately to consider this matter."
U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said she was pleased that Congress' input is being sought.
"I will consider the evidence and consequences of American intervention carefully in the coming days," said Kuster, who last week had urged caution before considering military intervention in Syria.
On Friday, Shea-Porter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Obama urging him to seek authorization from Congress before taking any proactive military action against Syria.
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said the decision will not be easy.
"I continue to believe that the Assad regime must be held accountable by the international community for the use of chemical weapons.
Authorizing the use of military force, however, is not a decision I take lightly. In the coming days, I will consider the upcoming vote carefully before doing what I believe is best for our national security interests," she said in a statement.
Obama's decision was seen by some as 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 many Americans reluctant to get involved in Middle Eastern conflicts.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken last week showed only 20 percent believe the United States should take action against Syria, but that was up from 9 percent the previous week.