Pentagon spends $8.3M per day on war against Islamic State

1413906751308.cached
21 Oct 2014

Islamic state gets U.S. made weapons air dropped into territory they control.

At least one bundle of U.S. weapons air dropped in Syria appears to have fallen into the hands of ISIS, a dangerous misfire in the American mission to speed aid to Kurdish forces making their stand in Kobani.

An ISIS-associated YouTube account posted a new video online Tuesday entitled, “Weapons and munitions dropped by American planes and landed in the areas controlled by the Islamic State in Kobani.” The video was also posted on the Twitter account of “a3maq news,” which acts as an unofficial media arm of ISIS. The outfit has previously posted videos of ISIS fighters firing American made Howitzer cannons and seizing marijuana fields in Syria.

ISIS had broadly advertised its acquisition of a broad range of U.S.-made weapons during its rampage across Iraq. ISIS videos have showed its fighters driving U.S. tanks, MRAPs, Humvees. There are unconfirmed reports ISIS has stolen three fighter planes from Iraqi bases it conquered.

The authenticity of this latest video could not be independently confirmed, but the ISIS fighters in the video are in possession of a rich bounty of American hand grenades, rounds for small rockets, and other supplies that they will surely turn around and use on the Kurdish forces they are fighting in and around the Turkish border city.

 

 

On Monday, White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the U.S. government was confident that the emergency airdropped supplies for the Kurdish forces near Kobani were falling into the right hands.

“We feel very confident that, when we air drop support as we did into Kobani… we’ve been able to hit the target in terms of reaching the people we want to reach,” Rhodes told CNN. “What I can assure people is that, when we are delivering aid now, we focus it on the people we want to receive that assistance. Those are civilians in need. Those are forces that we’re aligned with in the fight against ISIL [the government’s preferred acronym for ISIS], and we take precautions to make sure that it’s not falling into the wrong hands.”

Rhodes was responding to questions about a Monday report in The Daily Beast that U.S. humanitarian aid was flowing into ISIS controlled areas near Kobani by truck. That aid was mostly food and medical supplies, not the kind of lethal weapons in the new ISIS video.

“Senior administration officials” said Sunday that three American planes dropped a total of 27 bundles near Kobani and more U.S. air drops could come as part of the joint U.S.-Iraqi effort to aid Kurdish fighters in the Kobani area. The supplies were provided by Kurdish authorities, the official said. There have also been at least 135 air strikes against ISIS in the area, according to the State Department.

In the new footage, many of the weapons appear to be U.S. made. But at least one American logistics specialist has his doubts about the authenticity of the video’s claims.

“I’ve watched the video several times and it appears bogus to me,” e-mailed Dakota Wood, a former U.S. Central Command logistics planner, now with the Heritage Foundation. “The RPG [[rocket propelled grenade] rounds seem packaged properly, but the final box opened has Spanish markings. The canister opened at the end of the video is not representative of a current U.S. grenade (all our frag grenades are baseball shaped). The photo of M-16s is highly questionable, as the packaging shown is what one would see at a civilian gun show, instead of the packaging I’m familiar with from shipments to armories. Plus, those boxes also don’t fit with the air drop bundle shown.”

Wood added, “Why deliver a box of loose grenades all tumbling around knowing it’s going to be dropped from x-1000 feet? Why brand new M16s in cardboard boxes that are displayed on tables in a camo-netted setting when the drop occurred in the middle of some pretty sparse terrain and the video/pictures are shared so soon after the drop? There are just a lot of odd elements. And we know from so much propaganda video from all sides that folks will put together and post just about anything to puff-up their story.”

The airstrikes and air drops appear to be having an impact. The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer, reporting from the Syrian border, said the morale in Kobani has shifted in the last 24 hours. But ISIS continues to hold major swaths of territory in and around Kobani, despite widespread media reports to the contrary. And the civilians there are suffering, badly.

“I think what this represents is the President recognizes this is going to be a long-term campaign against ISIL; and that we need to look for whatever opportunity we can find to degrade that enemy and to support those who are fighting against ISIL on the ground,” a “senior administration official” told reporters.

— with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman

The Pentagon speaks

The Pentagon has revised its estimate of the cost of the US air war in Iraq and Syria, saying the price tag for the campaign against the Islamic State group comes to about $8.3 million a day.

Since air strikes began on August 8, the campaign – which has involved about 6,600 sorties by US and allied aircraft – has cost $580 million, said Pentagon spokesman Commander Bill Urban.

The Defense Department had previously put the average daily cost of the military operation at more than $7 million a day.

The higher figure reflected the increased pace of air strikes and related flights, a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

But independent analysts say the Defense Department is underestimating the genuine cost of the war effort, which began in mid-June with the deployment of hundreds of US troops to secure the American embassy in Baghdad and to advise the Iraqi army.

Some former budget officials and outside experts estimate the cost of the war has already exceeded a billion dollars, and that it could rise to several billion dollars in a year’s time.

Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments projected the war could cost $2.4 to $3.8 billion a year, in an analysis issued on September 29.

If the intensity of the bombing raids is expanded, the air war could cost as much as $4.2 to $6.8 billion per year, according to Harrison’s report.

One of the biggest drains on the budget for the air war are the large number of surveillance and reconnaissance flights that bombing raids require, analysts say.

The campaign, dubbed “Operation Inherent Resolve,” has seen thousands of spy flights and aerial refueling runs.

The cost of flying the spy planes range from about $1,000 an hour for Predator and Reaper drones to $7,000 an hour for high-altitude Global Hawk drones, or as much as $22,000 per hour for E-8 J-STAR (Joint Surveillance Target Radar Attack System) aircraft.

Funds for the air war are coming out of the Pentagon’s de facto war budget, the Overseas Contingency Operations fund.

Separate from the regular defense “base” budget, the OCO fund is often portrayed as a “credit card” to cover the costs of wars.

Congress increased the OCO budget to about $85 billion for last fiscal year, ending September 30. The proposed fund for the new fiscal year 2015 is due to drop to $54 billion.

So despite a collapsing economy, crumbling infrastructure, millions of people unemployed and living in poverty, the US has unlimited funds to foist ‘democracy’ on sovereign nations states, so that these countries too may experience the ‘wonders’ of American-style democracy.

10 civilians killed in US-led airstrikes in Syria – watchdog

Smoke and flames rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014. (Reuters / Kai Pfaffenbach)

Smoke and flames rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014. (Reuters / Kai Pfaffenbach)

RT news
October 18, 2014

At least 10 civilians have been killed in coalition airstrikes against Islamic State forces in eastern and northeastern Syria, according to a monitoring group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that the civilians were killed in two regions – the eastern Deir al-Zor province and the northeastern province of al-Hassakah.

Seven people were killed in an airstrike on a gas station near Koniko gas factory near the town of al-Khasham in Deir al-Zor province on Friday.

In al-Hasakah province, three civilians – including a child under the age of 18 – were killed when airstrikes targeted oil fields near Kabiba village, south of the province’s capital. There is no information on whether there were workers in the local oil fields or not, the monitoring group added.

However, Washington said there is no evidence to back this information.

“We have seen no evidence at this time to corroborate claims of civilian casualties. I can assure you that before any mission, every precaution is taken to ensure civilians are not harmed,” US Central Command spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder said.

The US-led coalition started bombing Islamic State targets in Syria in September. The coalition began an operation in Iraq in August.

Middle East: Iraqis sceptical about war on ISIL

Since last June, ISIL has overrun large parts of northern and western Iraq [Al Jazeera]

Since last June, ISIL has overrun large parts of northern and western Iraq [Al Jazeera]

Erbil, Iraq – Samih Radhwan, 26, is playing a game on his phone as he awaits his turn at a barbershop in Erbil’s Havalan neighbourhood.

Seven years ago, he and his family moved to Erbil in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region from Baghdad and settled in this neighbourhood, which has a large population that fled sectarian conflict in other parts of the country.

Although a Sunni Arab, he says he does not approve of the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) despite its claims to be an advocate for Sunni rights in Iraq and the broader region.

“What they do is something that one can only expect in an extremely horrifying movie,” says Radhwan as he rubs his neatly trimmed and fashionable beard. “Our tragedy is that this is all actually real and happening.”

Since last June, ISIL has overrun large parts of northern and western Iraq and established itself as the de facto authority in most parts of the country’s Sunni-dominated governorates. The group’s dramatic rise in Iraq was in large part aided by the strong resentment that many average Sunnis felt toward the policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which was perceived to privilege members of Iraq’s Shia communities.

“ISIL is only one side of this game,” Radhwan said. “What about those other groups and militias and people in the government who pushed many Sunnis to support ‘Daesh’,” he adds, using the term Iraqis often use to describe ISIL.

Radhwan’s family has first-hand experience with sectarian brutality and his words amplify the grievances and misgivings of many Sunni Arabs about siding with the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIL.A few months before his family left their home in a Baghdad suburb, one of his uncles, a local store-owner, was abducted by a militia group for sectarian reasons. He was released three months later after a hefty ransom was paid by Radhwan’s family. They managed to collect the amount by borrowing money from relatives and friends.Sunnis have accused Maliki of deliberately attempting to marginalise and undermine them by viewing Sunnis in strictly sectarian terms.

Some Sunni Arab tribes and members of the Awakening Council are fighting alongside the Iraqi coalition against ISIL. But the majority of Sunni tribes have so far refused to turn against the group. Many of them want assurances that if they help expel ISIL from Iraq, the Iraqi government will honour its word and grant Sunnis more power and control over the regions in which they are populous.

In Tairawa neighbourhood, less than a kilometre from Erbil’s millennia-old citadel, Saman Salim, a 31-year-old teacher, is sharing a moment of relaxation with a friend as they eat ice cream.

“If you ask me, I’d say everyone should fight ‘Daesh’,” he says. “We have seen what they do and how they rule… Everyone needs to do more, the [Kurdish forces] Peshmerga, Iraqi army and the Americans.”

But even if they [ISIL] are defeated, there is little trust between the Sunnis and the government and even the Kurds and Baghdad… Problems will continue anyway in some shape and form.

– Saman Salim, Erbil resident

For many Kurds, ISIL was the last thing they needed. While the local economy had considerably slowed down since February when Maliki cut off the Kurdish government’s budget, ISIL’s emergence and swift attacks on Kurdish-held territory represented an existential threat.

But Salim does not believe that ISIL will be defeated easily.

“They are strong and many of them will fight to the end,” he said. “But even if they [ISIL] are defeated, there is little trust between the Sunnis and the government and even the Kurds and Baghdad… Problems will continue anyway in some shape or form.”

Observers say that had it not been for the US air strikes and military support from western nations and Iran, Kurds would have faced an extremely challenging task to fight ISIL on their own as the group is far better equipped than its Kurdish rivals.

Iraqi Kurds, speaking to Al Jazeera, have been unsettled by the unfolding events on the other side of the border in Syria as ISIL has laid siege and attacked the Kurdish-dominated area of Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab in northern Syria. Some estimates point out that as many as 200,000 civilians have fled their homes in Kobani.

For Iraqi Kurds, who have been repeatedly displaced in the past few decades, such scenes are all painful reminders of their past and hint at what might have happened if ISIL had not been stopped when they reached around 30km south west of Erbil last summer.



Erbil is now home to tens of thousands of internally displaced people who were driven out of their homes by ISIL’s offensives in northern Iraq.

Ainkawa, a Christian-dominated suburb in the northern part of the city, hosts dozens of families that hastily abandoned their homes in the historic Nineveh plains when ISIL fighters marched towards the area in August. Um Asma, 33, is one of them. She currently resides in an unfinished building.

“May God bless anyone who can rid us of those criminals,” she says waiving her hands passionately. “We have nothing now. We lost everything we had… Why do we have to see so much misery?”

ISIL’s onslaught in Nineveh plains has been particularly costly for the religious minorities there. It’s believed that for the first time since the advent of Christianity in Iraq nearly 2,000 years ago, Mosul, a historically significant city for Christians, is almost empty of its Christian population.

In Sinjar near the Syrian border, the militants are believed to have killed hundreds of the followers of the ancient Mesopotamian Yazidi religion and kidnapped many Yazidi women. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled their homes as they got word of ISIL’s assault fearing the group’s brutality and proselytising zeal.

Ghanim Elias used to be a teacher in his hometown of Bashika northeast of Mosul, leading a quiet life with other people in the mixed Yazidi, Christian, and Muslim town. He is now in Erbil along with hundreds of other Yazidis and acts as a community leader trying to attract aid for members of his displaced community.

“This is the beginning of the end for ‘Daesh’ [ISIL],” he says. “The campaign should have started earlier.”

Khero Farhan, another Yazidi who fled his hometown of Sinjar shortly before ISIL reached there, is now a refugee in Dohuk, a city around a couple of hundred kilometres north of Erbil.

Seeing how the group has operated, he doubts victory can be achieved any time soon. “It’s going to take a lot of time and power for Daesh to be beaten,” says the 40-year-old man.

“Without international and American support, the Iraqi and [Kurdish] Peshmerga forces cannot do this alone. Daesh has surprised them with its power… Its fighters do not run away from death.”

 

 

More US raids as ISIL advances in Syria

Kurds have watched the fighting from the Turkish side of the border over the last two weeks [AP]

Kurds have watched the fighting from the Turkish side of the border over the last two weeks [AP]

Aljazeera – 1 October 2014

ISIL had continued closing in on the town near the Turkish border, despite multiple US air strikes on Tuesday The US defence department said it could not “bomb the militants into obscurity”.

US-led forces have carried out at least five air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) outside  Kobane, a monitoring group has said, after the group’s fighters pushed to within 2km of the Syrian-Kurdish town.

The strikes on Wednesday hit ISIL fronts south and southeast of the town, also known as Ain al-Arab , which the group has been battling to take for more than two weeks, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

ISIL had continued closing in on the town near the Turkish border, despite multiple US air strikes on Tuesday, as the US defence department said it could not “bomb the militants into obscurity”.”No oneshould be lulled into a false sense of security by accurate air strikes,” the department’s spokesman, John Kirby, said. “We will not, we cannot bomb them into obscurity.”The US and UK also bombed ISIL positions in Iraq as Kurdish peshmerga forces launched a ground assault on Tuesday.

A long-term effort will be needed to train and arm Syrian rebel forces and strengthen Iraq’s army, he said.

Tuesday’s advance was the closest ISIL had come to Kobane since it began an advance nearly two weeks ago, sending tens of thousands of mostly Kurdish refugees fleeing across the border.

NATO member Turkey, after months of caution in the fight against ISIL, has decided to harden its policy, and the government asked parliament on Tuesday to authorise military action against them in Iraq and Syria.

Politicians are due to debate a motion on Thursday that deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc said would “meet all the demands and eliminate the risks and threats”.

Turkey has remained silent about what its intervention would entail, but Arinc indicated the parliamentary mandate would be kept as broad as possible to allow the government freedom to decide.

In a separate development, three car bombs killed at least 13 people and wounded 41 in Shia-dominated areas of the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Tuesday, police and hospital sources said.

IRAQ IN TURMOIL

Two bombs in Baghdad have killed 21 people and injured 59 in an attack on a busy marketplace in Jediydah, a Shia area in the south of city. Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from the city, said the first blast was an IED. The second was a bomb inside a parked vehicle. The explosions happened about 15 minutes ago, so Al Jazeera will update when more information is available.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

After Civilian Deaths, Human Rights Watch Says US Strikes on Syria May Violate Laws of War

As US Bombs Iraq and Syria, Who Exactly Is Being Killed?

 

Pentagon provides scant information about people dying at its hands, while reports of civilian casualties emerge from the ground

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

PENTAGON: THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING

 As the United States passes week seven of its expanded war on Iraq, and week two of air strikes across Syria, a critical question remains unanswered: Who exactly is dying in the air bombardments?

Many fear this question will remain unanswered. “I’m concerned that the U.S. is not held to the same standard as other countries when it comes to violating international law and killing civilians,” Raed Jarrar, Policy Impact Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams.

The U.S. military and government have provided virtually no information about civilian and combatant casualties and have denied on-the-ground reports that innocent people are being killed and wounded in the escalating attacks.

But this official version of events is contradicted by mounting reports from Syria. As recently as Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that overnight U.S. coalition bombings of alleged ISIS positions in northern and eastern Syria took civilian lives, the exact number unspecified. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman told the Associated Press that a strike on a grain silo in the town of Manbij in Aleppo province “killed only civilians there, workers at the site. There was no ISIS inside.” He added that the bombings “destroyed the food that was stored there.”

The U.S. military on Monday denied the civilian deaths to Reuters but presented no evidence backing its claims. A U.S. Central Command statement released Monday offered no further information about civilian or combatant deaths, stating that air strikes were conducted against a “ISIL vehicles within a staging area adjacent to an ISIL-held grain storage facility near Manbij,” in addition to other targets.

The Observatory is not the only organization to sound the alarm on civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch released a report on Sunday that apparent U.S. missile strikes on Idlib in Syria on September 23 killed at least seven civilians. “Three local residents told Human Rights Watch that missiles killed at least two men, two women, and five children,” reads the report. Video footage from local residents and the Shaam News Network, available on the HRW website, appear to verify that civilians were wounded and killed in the strikes. According to some estimates, as many as 24 civilians were killed in coalition air strikes on this day.

Pentagon Spokesperson Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby denied those civilian deaths as well, again offering no evidence. “This is a pretty remote area of the country, mostly just desert. It’s not — it’s not urban,” he told the Associated Press. “We don’t believe that there’s much reason to be too concerned about any collateral damage, you know, to civilian property, that kind of thing.”

But numerous journalists say their contacts corroborate reports of civilian deaths, including Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris, who tweeted: “DOD says “unaware” of civilian casualties in Syria, but source w/ contacts there tells me at lat 10 killed in a strike NOT against ISIS.”

The Pentagon has also claimed that civilians are spared in its ongoing bombings of Iraq, which now number over 240 strikes since August eighth. But the U.S. has offered no evidence backing this claim, and numerous voices from Iraq and across the world warn that the renewed U.S. war in the country is bringing further militarization and death to ordinary Iraqis, who are squeezed between siege from ISIS and strikes from above.

According to Jarrar, the failure of the U.S. to account for the Iraqis killed in the 2003 war raises serious concerns about U.S. accountability and honesty over who it kills. “There is strong evidence that the U.S.-led attacks have killed dozens of civilians in Syria in the last few weeks and killed tens and thousands of civilians in Iraq over the last decade, and we haven’t seen any investigations into these crimes,” said Jarrar. “There is no reason to believe the U.S. will investigate itself.”

Robert Naiman, policy director for Just Foreign Policy, told Common Dreams, “There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”

According to Jarrar, the U.S. hand in civilian deaths extends beyond direct bombings. “The indirect U.S. intervention is left unchecked as well: U.S. training and funding and equipping proxy groups in Iraq and Syria. There is very strong evidence that many of the U.S. allies that have been receiving us military assistance and training and equipments have been committing gross human rights violations and the U.S. has not been held accountable.”

As U.S. strikes on Syria expand, Human Rights Watch says a bombing last week on the town of Idlib should be investigated for possible violations of the laws of war. The strikes killed at least seven civilians, including five children, in the early morning hours of September 23 in the village of Kafr Deryan in northern Idlib province. Local activists at the scene of the attack collected and videotaped the remnants from the weapons used in the strikes. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and identified the remnants as debris of a turbofan engine from a Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon that only the U.S. and British governments possess. “Witness accounts suggest that the attack on the village harmed civilians but did not strike a military target, violating the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that it unlawfully caused civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage,” HRW details. The group has called on the U.S. government to investigate the allegations and publish its findings. We are joined by Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria.

Breaking News: Obama Says U.S.[HE] Underestimated the Rise of ISIS

 President Obama met last week with leaders and representatives of Arab allies carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

President Obama met last week with leaders and representatives of Arab allies carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Ten cents worth:

The broader tensions between the populations that “are the biggest cause of conflict, not just in the Middle East, but in the world,” Mr. Obama said …

Since the 1960’s the biggest cause of conflict in the world has been US military aggression. The Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars have done far more damage than tensions between middle eastern populations. Arguably, if the US were not involved militarily in the region, its populations would re-establish the equilibrium that existed before Bush/Cheney.

Failing to learn the lessons of decades of military meddling, President Obama once more leads us to “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”. And apparently US administrations are exempt from war crimes prosecutions.

Where are the Times pictures showing how many innocent civilians are being killed by the US and allies bombs?

Obama Says U.S. Underestimated the Rise of ISIS

WASHINGTON — President Obama acknowledges in an interview to be broadcast Sunday night that the United States underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group while placing too much trust in the Iraqi military, allowing the region to become “ground zero for jihadists around the world.”

In some of his most candid public remarks on the subject, Mr. Obama says in the interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes” that it was “absolutely true” that the United States had erred in its assessments of both the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — and the Iraqi military.

A political solution there might help ease the broader tensions between the populations that “are the biggest cause of conflict, not just in the Middle East, but in the world,” Mr. Obama said, according to excerpts from the president’s interview with Steve Kroft on the CBS News website.

Military Buildup around Syria – Syria warns U.S. not to intervene militarily

 

 

 

Columns of smoke rise from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in west Damascus, Syria, on Thursday.(Photo: Hassan Ammar, AP)

Columns of smoke rise from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in west Damascus, Syria, on Thursday.(Photo: Hassan Ammar, AP)

Syrian government warned the U.S. that any military action against Damascus would set the Middle East ablaze.

 

The Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The Syrian government accused rebels of using chemical weapons Saturday and warned the United States not to launch any military action against Damascus over an alleged chemical attack last week, saying such a move would set the Middle East ablaze.

The accusations by the regime of President Bashar Assad against opposition forces came as an international aid group said it has tallied 355 deaths from a purported chemical weapons attack on Wednesday in a suburb of the Syrian capital known as Ghouta.

Syria is intertwined in alliances with Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian militant groups. The country also borders its longtime foe and U.S. ally Israel, making the fallout from military action unpredictable.

Violence in Syria has already spilled over the past year to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters have joined the combat alongside Assad’s forces.

Speaking to reporters Sunday in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel declined to say what action the U.S. might take. He said the administration is weighing many factors. These include an intelligence assessment of the attack in Syria, as well as what he called legal issues and the matter of international support for any military response.

Meanwhile, U.S. naval units are moving closer to Syria. U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss ship movements publicly.

President Obama has emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war was problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike.

After Obama met with his national security team Saturday, the White House said U.S. intelligence officials are still trying to determine whether Assad’s government unleashed the chemical weapons attack earlier this week.

The White House statement said Obama received a detailed review of the range of options he has requested for the U.S. and the international community to respond if it is determined that Assad has engaged in deadly chemical warfare.

Obama spoke by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron about Syria, the White House said.

A statement from Cameron’s office at No. 10 Downing St. said the prime minister and Obama are concerned by “increasing signs” that “a significant chemical weapons attack” was carried out by the Syrian government against its people. Obama and Cameron “reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community,” according to the statement.

Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi dismissed the possibility of an American attack, warning that such a move would risk triggering more violence in the region.

“The basic repercussion would be a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East,” al-Zoubi said in an interview with Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV. “An attack on Syria would be no easy trip.”

In Tehran, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Abbas Arakji, warned that an American military intervention in Syria will “complicate matters.”

“Sending warships will not solve the problems but will worsen the situation,” Arakji said in comments carried by Iran’s Arabic-language TV Al-Alam. He added that any such U.S. move does not have international backing and that Iran “rejects military solutions.”

In France, Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” over less than three hours on Wednesday morning, when the attack in the eastern Ghouta area took place.

Of those, 355 died, the Paris-based group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that its estimated death toll from the alleged chemical attack had reached 322, including 54 children, 82 women and dozens of fighters. It said the dead included 16 people who have not been identified.

The group said it raised its death toll from an earlier figure of 136, which had been calculated before its activists in the stricken areas met doctors, residents and saw medical reports. It said the dead “fell in the massacre committed by the Syrian regime.”

Death tolls have varied wildly over the alleged attack, with Syrian anti-government activists reporting between 322 and 1,300 killed.

Al-Zoubi blamed the rebels for the chemical attacks in Ghouta, saying that the Syrian government had proof of their responsibility but without giving details. “The rockets were fired from their positions and fell on civilians. They are responsible,” he said.

With the pressure increasing, Syria’s state media accused rebels in the contested district of Jobar near Damascus of using chemical weapons against government troops Saturday.

State TV broadcast images of plastic jugs, gas masks, vials of an unspecified medication, explosives and other items that it said were seized from rebel hideouts Saturday.

One barrel had “made in Saudi Arabia” stamped on it. The TV report also showed medicines said to be produced by a Qatari-German medical supplies company. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are strong supporters of the Syrian rebels. The report could not be immediately verified.

An army statement issued late Saturday said the discovery of the weapons “is clear evidence that these gangs are using chemical weapons against our people and soldiers with help from foreign sides.”

The claims could muddy the debate about who was responsible for Wednesday’s alleged gas attack, which spurred demands for an independent investigation and renewed talk of potential international military action if chemical weapons were used.

Just hours before the state media reports, the U.N. disarmament chief arrived in Damascus to press Assad’s regime to allow U.N. experts to investigate the alleged Wednesday attack. The regime has denied allegations it was responsible, calling them “absolutely baseless” and suggesting they are an attempt to discredit the government.

The U.S., Britain, France and Russia have urged the Assad regime and the rebels fighting to overthrow him to cooperate with the United Nations and allow a team of experts already in Syria to look into the latest purported use of chemical agents. The U.N. secretary-general dispatched Angela Kane, the high representative for disarmament affairs, to push for a speedy investigation into Wednesday’s purported attack. She did not speak to reporters upon her arrival in Damascus Saturday.

The state news agency said several government troops who took part in the Jobar offensive experienced severe trouble breathing or even “suffocation” after “armed terrorist groups used chemical weapons.” It was not clear what was meant by “suffocation,” and the report mentioned no fatalities among the troops.

“The Syrian Army achieved major progress in the past days and for that reason, the terrorist groups used chemical weapons as their last card,” state TV said. The government refers to rebels fighting to topple Assad as “terrorists.”

State TV also broadcast images of a Syrian army officer, wearing a surgical mask, telling reporters wearing similar masks that soldiers were subjected to poisonous attack in Jobar. He spoke inside the depot where the alleged confiscated products were placed.

“Our troops did not suffer body wounds,” the officer said. “I believe terrorist groups used special substances that are poisonous in an attempt to affect this advance.”

Al-Mayadeen aired interviews with two soldiers hospitalized for possible chemical weapons attack. The two appeared unharmed but were undergoing tests.

“We were advancing and heard an explosion that was not very strong,” a soldier said from his bed. “Then there was a strange smell, my eyes and head ached and I struggled to breathe.” The other soldier also said he experienced trouble breathing after the explosion.

Al-Mayadeen TV, which has a reporter embedded with the troops in the area, said some 50 soldiers were rushed to Damascus hospitals for treatment and that it was not yet known what type of gas the troops were subjected too.

In Turkey, top Syrian rebel commander Salim Idris told reporters that opposition forces did not use chemical weapons on Saturday and that “the regime is lying.”

For days, the government has been trying to counter rebel allegations that the regime used chemical weapons on civilians in rebel-held areas of eastern Damascus, arguing that opposition fighters themselves were responsible for that attack.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius dismissed the Syrian government’s claims.

“All the information we have is converging to indicate there was a chemical massacre in Syria, near Damascus, and that Bashar Assad’s regime was behind it,” Fabius told reporters during a visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah. He did not elaborate.

France has suggested that force could be used against Syria if Assad’s regime was proven to have used chemical arms.

The new talk of potential military action in in the country has made an independent investigation by U.N. inspectors critical to determine what exactly transpired.

The U.N. experts already in Syria are tasked with investigating three earlier purported chemical attacks in the country: one in the village of Khan al-Assal outside the northern city of Aleppo in March, as well as two other locations that have been kept secret for security reasons.

It took months of negotiations between the U.N. and Damascus before an agreement was struck to allow the 20-member team into Syria to investigate. Its mandate is limited to those three sites, however, and it is only charged with determining whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them.

Leaders of the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group on Saturday vowed retaliation for the alleged chemical weapons attack.

From Istanbul, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Al-Jarba, also criticized the lack of response to the attack by the United Nations and the international community, saying the UN was discrediting itself.

“It does not reach the ethical and legal response that Syrians expect,” he said. “As a matter of fact we can describe it as a shame.”

The Associated Press