WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama stepped back from the brink on Saturday and delayed an imminent military strike against Syria to seek approval from the US Congress in a gamble that will test his ability to project American strength abroad and deploy his own power at home.
Before Obama put on the brakes, the path had been cleared for a US assault. Navy ships were in place and awaiting orders to launch missiles, and UN inspectors had left Syria after gathering evidence of a chemical weapons attack that US officials say killed 1,429 people.
But Obama decided to seek the backing of US lawmakers before attacking, as polls showed strong opposition from Americans already weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Approval will take at least 10 days, if it comes at all.
"Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move as one nation," Obama said in a dramatic shift he announced in the White House Rose Garden.
Obama, whose credibility has been called into question for not punishing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for earlier poison gas attacks, warned lawmakers they must consider the cost of doing nothing in Syria.
"Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?" he said.
Obama's approach, which he debated with top aides on Friday night, has left in doubt whether the United States will carry through with the military steps that the president has already approved.
Backing from Congress is by no means assured, with many Democrats and Republicans uneasy about intervening in a distant civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed over the past 2-1/2 years.