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We are ready to go, says US as strike on Syria nears

By David Usborne in Washington DC

The United States and its allies continued to prepare for limited military strikes against Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons against its own people, even as officials in Washington stressed that no decision had been made.

"We are ready to go," Chuck Hagel, the US Secretary of Defence, said when asked whether the Pentagon had assets in place ready to stage an attack.

Meanwhile, the Arab League gave its backing to an international response calling the regime in Damascus "totally responsible for this heinous crime".

The statement by the council of the Arab League, meeting in emergency session, gives some legal cover to the US if it chooses to take action. But the council, dominated by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also called upon the UN Security Council to overcome its divisions and agree "deterrent" measures against Syria.

A senior US official meanwhile cautioned that nothing was yet set in stone. "The President has not made a decision to undertake military action," the officials said, indicating that President Obama was still consulting his allies and seeking advice on whether military action was justified within international law.

Yet the momentum towards ordering some kind of strike seemed to grow. On Monday the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, called the evidence against the regime "undeniable".

The US was preparing, perhaps as early as last night, to lay out fresh intelligence further bolstering its case that the regime was culpable.

President Francois Hollande made clear the French government was ready to join the effort, declaring he was "ready to punish" those responsible for gassing innocents in the Damascus outskirts.

The White House said that Mr Obama had also spoken by phone to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Sources said that opposition leaders meeting with Western envoys in Istanbul yesterday had been told privately to get ready for some kind of military action soon.

The message was apparently delivered as representatives of the Friends of Syria group, including senior national security officials from the US and Britain, met Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition.

"The opposition was told in clear terms that action to deter further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime could come in the next few days, and that they should still prepare for peace talks at Geneva," one source said.

Interviewed by the BBC while on a visit to Brunei last night, Mr Hagel was asked if the Pentagon was ready to punish Syria "just like that" should the order come soon.

He replied: "We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take." It is thought likely that a strike would be executed with Cruise missiles fired from naval assets already in place in the eastern Mediterranean -- currently four US destroyers.

As it prepares the US populace for likely military action in the region, the US nonetheless continues to face a hostile reaction from Russia, a strong ally of Damascus, and from the regime itself.

(© Independent News Service)

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