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Kerry takes case for Syria strike to House panel

Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons is ‘‘a line that anyone with a conscience should draw.’’ He said US intelligence can prove Assad has used the weapons at least 11 times, and said North Korea and Iran were watching America closely.

‘‘The world is wondering whether the United States of America is going to consent with silence,’’ Kerry said.

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Kerry also said that when chemical weapons were used in Syria last spring, President Obama did not have a ‘‘compelling’’ enough case to push for a US military response.

At the hearing, Kerry said that while Obama didn’t have a strong enough case then, it does now after the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people outside Damascus.

Asked why Obama didn’t call for military action in the spring, Kerry replied that Obama had to struggle then just to get congressional backing to upgrade support to the Syrian opposition.

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Several conservative Republicans and some anti-war Democrats already have come out in opposition to Obama’s plans, even as Republican and Democratic House leaders gave their support to the president Tuesday.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Cal., said Wednesday that while it would be important to deter the use of chemical weapons by Assad and others, there remained many unanswered questions, including what the US would do if Assad retaliated to an American attack.

‘‘The administration’s Syria policy doesn’t build confidence,’’ Royce said in his prepared remarks.

The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, said he backed Obama’s call for military action against Syria but said it should be limited and not involve US ground troops.

‘‘If we do not pass the authorization measure, what message will Assad get,’’ said Engel. ‘‘What message will Iran receive, Hezbollah?’’

The audience at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing included several people wearing signs opposing US action against Syria and who had colored the palms of their hands red.

Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, made their arguments in public Wednesday before the House panel. They and other senior administration officials also provided classified briefings to the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.

As anti-war demonstrators seated behind him silently raised their red-colored hands, Kerry told the Foreign Affairs committee that the world’s nations were watching Congress.

‘‘They want to know whether or not America is going to rise to this moment,’’ said Kerry.

Hagel seconded Obama’s warnings about the potential scope of danger from failing to uphold international standards, saying ‘‘a refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments — including the president’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.’’

The House and Senate next week are expected to debate Obama’s request for congressional authorization for limited military strikes against Assad’s government.

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