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As Congress returns, competing U.S. rallies highlight Syria divide

Jehad Sibai, a physician from Michigan, joins a group of Syrian-Americans rallying in favor of proposed U.S. military action, outside the U.
Jehad Sibai, a physician from Michigan, joins a group of Syrian-Americans rallying in favor of proposed U.S. military action, outside the U.

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With a list of names, a stack of letters and a "Free Syria" pin on his lapel, Asaad Aref wandered the halls of Congress on Monday, trying to turn the tide in a debate that was not moving in his favor.

President Barack Obama's request to authorize a military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared to be losing traction in Congress, and the Obama administration seemed to be reconsidering the idea. Public opinion firmly opposed military action, and even Aref's fellow Syrian Americans were divided.

On top of that, it's easy for newcomers like Aref to get lost on Capitol Hill, where one marble corridor looks much like the other and a "suspicious package" can shut down a building for hours.

As the afternoon wore on, hope was giving way to punchy humor.

"Did you get a receipt? Go ask for a receipt," Aref told a young woman in his group of about eight after she dropped off a letter urging military action at the office of Representative Michael Grimm, a New York Republican.

"Maybe we should come back in 10 minutes and look in their trash can," he added.

As lawmakers return to Washington after a month-long break, they face what could be one of the most defining foreign-policy votes since Congress backed Republican President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago.

Obama says Congress should authorize limited military strikes to punish Assad for an apparent chemical attack last month that killed 1,400 people.

But public opinion polls show that Americans have little appetite for further military action after costly and inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama faces a particularly tough sell in the House of Representatives, where antiwar Democrats and anti-Obama Republicans could join forces to defeat the measure.

Still, most lawmakers remain undecided at this point, according to tallies by several news organizations, giving advocates on both sides of the issue a sense that they might be able to sway the debate in their direction.

The liberal grassroots group MoveOn.org planned 160 protests across the country on Monday evening and said its members have placed at least 22,000 calls to lawmakers urging a "no" vote on the resolution.

On the other side, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel organization regarded as one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington, plans to send 250 of its members to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to help make the case for a strike.

COMPETING RALLIES

Monday saw dozens of Syrian flags waving on the Capitol grounds as rival Syrian American groups staged competing rallies outside the Capitol. Police ensured the two groups did not come face to face.

Clutching a portrait of Bashar al-Assad, Naife Khalouf of Allentown, Pennsylvania said she supported the Syrian strongman because he had protected her fellow Orthodox Christians from persecution in the Muslim-majority country.

"He's wonderful, I believe in him," Khalouf, 64, said quietly as several hundred antiwar protesters waved Syrian flags and chanted "Hands off Syria."

Several others at the rally said they did not believe that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack and warned that a military strike would only deliver the country into the hands of al Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups.

Khalouf, 64, and others who had made the trip from Allentown appear to already have accomplished their mission: Their representative in Congress, Republican Charlie Dent, has said publicly that he opposes military intervention.

On the other side of the issue, Aref has not had similar success. While his congressman, Democrat Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, is officially undecided, friends have told him he is unlikely to back military action.

Aref said he wouldn't try to change his mind.

"It's a waste of breath," Aref said. "Some pro-Bashar people got to him."

Aref said that before he immigrated to the United States in 1988, he had been locked up for a month by the Syrian government for questioning the leadership of Assad's father while visiting Turkey. He has returned to Syria several times since the conflict started 2-1/2 years ago.

Aref said he was frustrated that Americans were first indifferent to a conflict that has taken more than 100,000 lives and now oppose action even after an atrocity that appears to have gotten their attention.

Waiting for a stoplight, Aref engaged in a high-volume argument with an anti-war protester wearing desert camouflage. He said he appreciated the ability to engage in the debate.

"Would you dare to do something like that in the Middle East? You'd be shot," he said.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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