BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday blamed "foreign planning" for a 10-month-old popular uprising in which thousands of people have been killed and vowed to strike "terrorists with an iron fist."

Assad, speaking in public for the first time since June, also said he welcomed the idea of expanding the government to include "all political forces" and held out the prospect of a referendum in March on a new constitution for Syria.

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His speech was delivered at Damascus University and broadcast on state television.

Since the uprising began, Assad has responded with a mixture of repression and promises of reform and dialogue. Opposition forces say the bloodshed shows the real face of a leader whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades.

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed by security forces trying to suppress anti-Assad demonstrations that erupted in March, inspired by a wave of revolts against Arab autocrats across the Middle East.

Member of Syrian opposition egged by demonstrators (Reuters)

Syrian authorities say foreign-backed armed "terrorists" have killed 2,000 members of the security forces.

Despite the high casualty toll, Assad denied any policy to shoot demonstrators. "There is no cover for anyone. There are no orders for anyone to open fire on any citizen," he said.

But he stressed his priority was to restore order in Syria and that could only be achieved by "hitting terrorists with an iron fist."

"There is no tolerance for terrorism or for those who use weapons to kill," said Assad.

Heading for war?

"The situation in Syria is heading towards a religious, sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former friend of Assad who has become one of his fiercest critics, said on Monday.

The Arab League, which suspended Syria in November and announced sanctions, has sent in monitors to judge whether Damascus is complying with a peace plan calling for withdrawal of troops from cities, prisoner releases and political dialogue.

Syrian opposition figures said on Monday the League mission, which began work on Dec. 26, had failed to stop the bloodshed and was only giving Assad more time to crush his opponents.

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After a review meeting in Cairo on Sunday, the Arab League said Damascus had only partly implemented its pledges, but decided to keep the observer mission going for now. An official said the size of the team would rise to 200 this week from 165.

In his speech, Assad said he would not "close the door" to any Arab solution that respects Syrian sovereignty.

Syrian opposition figures have called for action by the UN Security Council to halt Assad's offensive against protesters.

"We need to know what the League will do if the regime continues its crackdown in the presence of the monitors. At one point it needs to refer Syria to the UN Security Council," said Rima Fleihan, of the opposition Syrian National Council.

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