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WASHINGTON - Syrian President Bashar Assad is pursuing dangerous policies that could unleash war on the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned on Thursday night.

In a speech to the American Jewish Committee in Washington, Clinton said that Syria's transfer of weapons to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon risks throwing the region into instability.

"We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria's transfer of weapons to Hizbollah," Clinton said. "We condemn this in the strongest possible terms and have expressed our concerns directly to the Syrian government."

She added: "Transferring weapons to these terrorists - especially longer-range missiles - would pose a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region.

"All states must stop supplying weapons to terrorist groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas. Every rocket smuggled into southern Lebanon or Gaza sets back the cause of peace."

Clinton's reference to long-range weapons follows reports that Syria supplied Hezbollah with advanced Scud missiles capable of inflicting sever damage on Israel's major cities - a charge Damascus denies.

She said: "President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region."

Clinton went on to defend America's recent decision to return an ambassador to Syria after a five-year absence.

"We know [Assad is] hearing from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, she said. "It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That's why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria.

"There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and clear messages aimed at changing Syria's behavior."

In her speech, Clinton stressed America's commitment to brokering Middle East peace, urging the Netanyahu government to stop building settlements and commit to peace talks - but also calling on the Arab world to begin normalizing relations with Israel.

"Arab states should reach out to the Israeli public, demonstrating that Israel's isolation in the region is ending, and all sides should resume multilateral discussions on critical regional issues," she said.

"We would hope to see concrete steps such as the opening or reopening of commercial trade offices and interest sections, overflight rights, and postal routes, and more people-to-people exchanges that build trust at the grassroots level. All the people of the region need concrete evidence of the benefits that peace will bring."

Iran

Earlier on Thursday Clinton warned Iran's president that he will not get a warm welcome at UN nonproliferation talks next week if he seeks to sow confusion about Iran's nuclear program.

The purpose of the meeting, which occurs every five years, is to recommit nations to the treaty's three pillars: disarmament, nonproliferation and the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, Clinton told a news conference.

"The mission of those of us going to New York to review, revise and reinvigorate the NPT regime is very clear. If that's not his mission, then it won't be a particularly useful or productive trip on his part," she said.

Clinton said she did not know why Ahmadinejad wanted to come to the conference, saying that Iran's record of violating the NPT was "absolutely indisputable."

Iran is a signatory to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) an denies Western claims it is developing civiliam nuclear power as cover for an atomic bomb program.

"If President Ahmadinejad wants to come and announce that Iran will abide by their nonproliferation requirements under the NPT, that would be very good news indeed and we would welcome that," she said.

"But if he believes that by coming he can somehow divert attention from this very important global effort or cause confusion that might possibly throw into doubt what Iran has been up to ... then I don't believe he will have a particularly receptive audience."

A State Department spokesman said visa requests for the Iranian delegation were still being processed. As the host for the UN headquarters, the United States usually grants visas to foreign leaders who wish to attend UN events.