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US doubts over Assad link to attack

The intelligence linking Syrian president Bashar Assad or his inner circle to the alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no "slam dunk", US officials have said.

The officials say questions remain about who controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores, and there are doubts about whether Assad himself ordered such a strike.

President Barack Obama has declared unequivocally that the Syrian government is responsible and has been laying the groundwork for an expected US military strike. A report by the office of the US director for national intelligence builds a case that Assad's forces are most likely responsible but also points to gaps in the US intelligence picture.

Mr Obama has said a US response would send a "strong signal" to Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

US intelligence officials are preparing briefings for Congress on evidence aimed at linking last week's attack to Assad's government. Officials are also seeking more intelligence to bolster the White House's case for a strike. New hurdles are emerging that appear to be slowing the formation of an international coalition to undertake military action.

The UN experts seeking to collect evidence from the site of the apparent chemical attack in Syria will report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as soon as they leave the country on Saturday. The team is expected to complete its inspection on Friday and their conclusions will be shared with members of the Security Council, Mr Ban said. He didn't specify when that might be. Mr Ban said he had told Mr Obama of his "sincere wish that this investigation team should be allowed to continue their work". He added: "Diplomacy should be given a chance and peace given a chance."

Russia has blocked efforts to seek a UN force resolution, and Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain is holding off from joining any military efforts until a UN chemical weapons inspection team releases its findings.

The Obama administration is vowing to take action even without the backing of allies or the UN. Congressional Republicans and Democrats are pressing Mr Obama to explain why the US military should attack Syria and involve Americans in a deadly civil conflict. Republican House speaker John Boehner has written to Mr Obama seeking answers. Exasperated members of the House and Senate say Mr Obama has failed to make a case for US military action against Syria despite the administration's conclusion that the Syrian government carried out the large-scale chemical weapons attack against civilians. Some US politicians insist that Mr Obama needs congressional authorisation for a strike.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has said his country will press efforts to ward off military action by the US and its allies against the Tehran-backed regime of Assad. The remarks came during a phone conversation between Mr Rouhani and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Mr Rouhani was quoted as saying "military action will bring great costs for the region" and "it is necessary to apply all efforts to prevent it".

The UN experts investigating the alleged poison gas attacks left their Damascus hotel on Thursday but anti-regime activists said the team's destination was not immediately known.UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the team would be leaving Syria on Saturday. Mr Ban asked for time for the inspection team to complete its investigation. Speaking in Vienna, he said all opinions should be heard before anyone makes decisions on how to react to the alleged attacks.

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