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White House says looking at limited response to Syria crisis

A Free Syrian Army fighter stands near a damaged military tank that belonged to the forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad after
A Free Syrian Army fighter stands near a damaged military tank that belonged to the forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad after

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is looking at a response to Syrian use of chemical weapons that is "very discrete and limited" and not open-ended, the White House said on Thursday, as President Barack Obama consulted German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone.

The Obama White House rejected any attempt to compare U.S. plans for Syria to Republican President George W. Bush's long-running war in Iraq that was justified on claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.

At the same time, the White House made a nuanced argument to suggest the United States might be willing to act on its own to enforce an international ban on the use of chemical weapons and protect U.S. national security interests.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama's potential response to Syria's August 21 chemical weapons attack stood in stark contrast to the Iraq experience.

"What we're talking about here is something very discrete and limited," he said, and not an open-ended conflict aimed at regime change.

As senior U.S. officials prepared to brief congressional leaders on the latest Syria information, Obama spoke by phone to Merkel to update her on the situation. He has also spoken in recent days to British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande.

Amid questions abroad about whether other nations would join the United States if a decision is made to launch military action, Earnest noted that a variety of world leaders and organizations such as the Arab League have voiced outrage at the chemical weapons attack and want a response.

"The opinion of other world leaders in this situation matters," he said.

Earnest said the United States would provide its own legal justification for an eventual response to chemical weapons use in Syria if necessary once Obama decides how to proceed."

"When the president reaches a determination about the appropriate response ... and a legal justification is required to substantiate or to back up that decision, we'll produce one on our own," Earnest said.

Earnest said the Obama administration is still on track to release details of an intelligence report aimed at showing why Washington is certain the Syrian government was behind the chemical weapons use.

Senior U.S. officials are to brief congressional leaders later on Thursday in an unclassified session.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Vicki Allen and Philip Barbara)