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The United States is laying the groundwork for a possible military strike on Syria. It would be in response to last week's chemical weapons attack that the U.S. blames on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. U.N. inspectors are now in Syria, gathering evidence. But Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. already has evidence Washington can't ignore, and those who use chemical weapons, he says, must be held accountable. NPR's Michele Kelemen begins our coverage.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry says he spent many hours talking to allies about how to respond to the use of, as he puts it, the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.
KELEMEN: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says he called Kerry to warn him that the U.S. and its partners are going down, as he puts it, a dangerous path. And he says Russia, a veto holder on the U.N. Security Council, wants no part of it.
SERGEY LAVROV: (Foreign language spoken)
KELEMEN: The use of force without the approval of the U.N. Security Council is a very grave violation of international law, Lavrov says. He's comparing the situation to the run-up to the war in Iraq, saying Washington, London and Paris haven't proven that Syria has crossed the red line.
Russia has suggested that the rebels may have staged a chemical weapons attack to provoke an international response. But Secretary Kerry says anyone who believes that needs to check their moral compass.
KERRY: As a father, I can't get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget.
KELEMEN: U.N. chemical weapons inspectors met with doctors and some of the victims today, even after the lead car in their convoy was hit by sniper fire. U.N. officials are urging the Syrian government and the rebels to ensure their safety as they continue their work. The U.S., though, is not waiting for their conclusion, says Barry Pavel, who runs the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.
BARRY PAVEL: My sense of the White House - and I think it's somewhat unprecedented for this White House - is that they think the Rubicon has been crossed, and I think they want to now send a very strong deterrent message that it shouldn't happen again. And this message, by the way, is not only for Assad. It's for other countries that might also consider the use of weapons of mass destruction.
KELEMEN: Pavel says President Obama realizes U.S. credibility is on the line, and though the administration may work around the U.N., it won't be going it alone.
PAVEL: This isn't going to be a unilateral U.S. operation. It's going to be a coalition-led operation. My guess is it'll be justified by NATO and the Arab League, and those international organizations have some standing.
KELEMEN: British Foreign Secretary William Hague says whatever actions his or other countries might take will be subject to international law, and he told the BBC they don't need a green light from the U.N. Security Council, which he says has failed to shoulder its responsibility on Syria.
WILLIAM HAGUE: Is it possible to act on chemical weapons? Is it possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the U.N. Security Council? I would argue yes, it is. Otherwise, of course, it might be impossible to respond to such outrages to such crimes.
KELEMEN: Hague says the large-scale use of chemical weapons in the 21st century cannot go unaddressed. That was the same message coming from the State Department. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.