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Kerry condemns Syria: 'It matters here if nothing is done'

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U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry laid out evidence that Assad killed more than 1,400 people through a chemical attack. U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry laid out evidence that Assad killed more than 1,400 people through a chemical attack.

By F. Brinley Bruton and Erin McClam, NBC News

(NBC) - Making a forceful case to answer a "crime against conscience," Secretary of State John Kerry declared Friday that the United States had a moral obligation to punish Syria for using chemical weapons — painting a ghastly portrait of twitching bodies, victims foaming at the mouth and row upon row of children gassed to death.

He called Syrian leader Bashar Assad "a thug and a murderer" and pledged, to a country weary after more than a decade of war in the Middle East, that the American response would not require ground troops and would not be open-ended.

President Barack Obama said he had not made a decision on military action, but echoed Kerry in saying any U.S. action would be limited. The United States has an obligation "as a leader in the world" to hold foreign nations to account when they use prohibited weapons, the president said.

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"This kind of offense is a challenge to the world," said Obama after a meeting with Baltic leaders. While the U.S. would prefer to act with the broad support of the international community, which has so far not been forthcoming, Obama said, "we don't want the world to be paralyzed."

An administration official confirmed that Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande on Friday.

With Americans skeptical, members of Congress raising questions and other nations outright objecting to a U.S. attack, Kerry said the world had to answer what he called a crime against humanity itself, carried out last week in the suburbs of the Syrian capital. He revealed that the attack had killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

"Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home," he said, "we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad's gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate."

He declared: "My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens."

Referring directly to the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said: "Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about."

As he spoke, the White House released an intelligence report claiming "high confidence" that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in the attack. The report cited a "large body of independent sources" but acknowledged that not all the evidence could be declassified.

Kerry encouraged Americans to read the report for themselves. He gave details of the American intelligence findings, including that Syrian rockets carrying chemical agents had been fired only from regime-controlled areas and had landed only in rebel-dominated areas.

Of the victims, he said: "We know what the doctors treating them didn't report. Not a scratch. Not a shrapnel wound. Not a cut. Not a gunshot wound. We saw rows of dead, lined up in burial shrouds, the white linen unstained by a single drop of blood."

Britain, the most steadfast U.S. ally, rejected military action in a stunning vote Thursday night. Acting through the United Nations is a dead-end because China and Russia, which have veto power in the Security Council, will not allow it.

And at home, members of Congress have insisted that Obama get lawmakers' approval. Americans appear to agree: In a poll released Friday by NBC News, almost eight in 10 said they wanted the president to sell Congress on military action before an attack.

Kerry acknowledged the hesitation and said it was important for the administration to talk about the evidence directly with Congress and the people. But the administration's findings, he said, were clear and compelling.

"This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts," he said. "So the primary question is really no longer ‘What do we know?' The question is what are we – we collectively – what are we in the world going to do about it?"

Just before Kerry spoke, the United Nations said that its chemical weapons inspectors had finished collecting samples from the site of the attack. But it said a complete analysis would take time and offered no sense of when it would be complete.

The NBC News poll found that support among Americans is higher for a limited military strike, such as cruise missiles fired from Navy warships in the Mediterranean Sea. But half of Americans are opposed to any military attack on Syria.

Before Kerry spoke, Obama huddled with his National Security Council on Syria at the White House.

On Thursday, top Obama administration officials — including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — scrambled to build support for a strike among key members of Congress.

White House officials told NBC News that the administration was prepared for the United States to go it alone. Still, even after a briefing from the administration officials, some members of Congress were unconvinced.

Syrian opposition activists say a school was attacked Monday with a substance they compared to Napalm, saying the only injuries recorded were burns across 50 to 80 percent of victims' bodies. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was disappointed that the president himself did not take part in the briefing.

"One of the things that has really bothered me is the president drawing a red line without knowing in his mind what he would do if they crossed the red line," he said,  referring to a remark Obama made a year ago about Syria's potential use of chemical weapons.

Other including members of Congress, including Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., emerged from the briefing persuaded, NBC News reported.

In Syria on Friday, the army bombed rebel-held areas of the capital, Damascus, and artillery shelling and large explosions could be heard from the suburbs at late morning. Stores were open, and people were shopping, even amid sounds of blasts.

Correspondent Bill Neely reported that traffic was flowing in the center of the city but people were apprehensive about whether — and when — missiles might rain down on them.

A Syrian official told Neely that officials were expecting a U.S. attack.

"We know its going to come, we just don't know when," Neely quoted the official as saying.

Around 100,000 people are thought to have been killed since the uprising began more than two years ago. Millions have been made homeless.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron indicated he wouldn't proceed without parliamentary approval.

"I strongly believe in the need for a tough response in the use of chemical weapons but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons," he said in the aftermath of his defeat.

Thursday's vote was nonbinding, but Cameron's loss on even a symbolic vote likely means there will be no second-round vote next week. 

On Friday, the BBC reported it had witnessed the aftermath of an incendiary bomb dropped by a jet plane on a school playground in the province of Aleppo in the north of the country. Scores of children were left with napalm-like burns on their bodies, the BBC reported.

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