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WASHINGTON — Syria will allow weapons inspectors to visit the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians, the United Nations said Sunday, but the Obama Administration said the access is too little, too late.
Top lawmakers said the time has come for a U.S. military response, one of the options under review by a White House feeling new pressure to act on President Obama’s declaration that chemical weapons are a “red line” for the United States.
U.N. chemical weapons experts planned to go today to the suburban Damascus neighborhood where the relief group Doctors Without Borders estimates that more than 330 people were killed and more than 3,600 injured by a suspected nerve agent last week. If confirmed, it would be the worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years, since Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gassed more than 3,000 people in an Iraqi Kurdish village.
There is “very little doubt” that an attack took place, a U.S. official said, citing intelligence assessments and other findings.
The senior administration official blamed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and suggested that the regime deliberately has tried to foil inspection by holding off inspectors while it continued to shell the area.
“At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted,” the official said.
Amid a buildup of U.S. military assets in the region, Mr. Obama was given a detailed review of options Saturday for responses that could include cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships.
No decisions were announced after an emergency White House meeting that included Vice President Joe Biden and top defense, intelligence, and diplomatic officials.
Mr. Obama “discussed possible responses” with French President Francois Hollande on Sunday, the White House said. France’s foreign minister had said last week that the alleged gas attack should be met “with force.”
Adding urgency to the international deliberations, Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group that the United States deems a terrorist organization, said Sunday that the gas attack gives a green light for rebels to respond in kind.
The group urged attacks on villages of the minority Alawite community, the Shiite sect to which Assad belongs, threatening to deepen the sectarian nature of the conflict now in its third year.
In interviews aired on Fox News Sunday, two top lawmakers called for an immediate U.S. military response.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should respond in a “surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention” but stops short of sending U.S. troops into Syria.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said a U.S. response should be joined by NATO allies. The attack could use cruise missile strikes, as the United States and NATO did in Libya, Mr. Engel said.
In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the United States was using charges of chemical attacks as an “excuse” to intervene in Syria, accusing Washington and Europe of turning a blind eye while Saudi Arabia and Turkey — both backers of the rebels — provide chemical weapons to foreign jihadi fighters in Syria.
Al-Zoubi said said foreign fighters were carrying out chemical attacks to implicate the Syrian government in hopes of prompting international military intervention.
The Obama Administration has begun sending small arms to the Syrian rebel forces in response to intelligence findings in June that the Assad regime had used the nerve agent sarin in previous, smaller attacks.
The U.N. team led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom will begin on-site work today and “focus its attention on ascertaining the facts of the Aug. 21 incident as its highest priority,” the United Nations said. Damascus agreed to a cease-fire while weapons inspectors are at work, the U.N. statement said.
Syria is known to possess mustard gas, sarin, and other internationally banned nerve agents.
The U.N. announcement followed high-level talks between Syrian authorities and the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, who traveled to Damascus last week to make the case for urgent on-site inspections.
Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, had joined the U.N. call for an investigation last week. Russia also suggested the rebels were at fault and on Sunday warned against U.S. military action or the “tragic mistake” of jumping to conclusions.
Mr. Obama has ruled out sending troops to Syria, but his national security advisers are revisiting other potential military options to degrade Syria’s military power or protect civilians.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.