Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on Tuesday firmed up a timetable for promised reform in the face of 10 months of anti-regime protests but vowed to crush "terrorism" with an iron fist.
Assad's rare public address, lasting nearly two hours, came as the UN Security Council prepared to discuss the crisis amid opposition criticism of the failure of a hard-won Arab League observer mission to end the bloodshed.
The embattled Syrian leader, who has made repeated promises of reforms that have failed to materialise in the past, said a new constitution in place of one which enshrines his Baath party's dominant role would be put to a popular vote as soon as the drafting had been completed.
"After legislation has been drawn up and a constitution... we will call a referendum... (maybe) in the first week of March." he said, adding that it would be followed by a general election.
"Elections must be linked to a new constitution," he said. "They could be at the start of May."
Assad said the new constitution would "focus on a central issue -- a multi-party system."
The president insisted no orders had been given to the security forces to open fire on civilian demonstrators and insisted he was still optimistic despite the violence which has rocked the country since March.
"By law, nobody can open fire, except in self-defence," he said.
"These past 10 months, despite all their hardships, were very beneficial... I am confident about the future."
Assad said that restoring security was the "absolute priority" for Syria and pledged his government would tackle terrorism with an "iron fist," after a Damascus suicide bombing killed 26 people on Friday.
"There can be no let-up for terrorism -- it must be hit with an iron fist," he said.
"The battle with terrorism is a battle for everyone, a national battle, not only the government's battle," said Assad.
"We must deal with terrorism through all legal methods. They have struck innocents... they are killing the Syrian people."
Assad rejected opposition charges that his regime was a dictatorship.
"I rule with the will of the people. If I give up power, I will do so with the will of the people too," he said. "The largest part of the Syrian people want reform and do not go out and violate laws."
Assad hit out at the Arab League, which has had a widely criticised observer mission in Syria since December 26 charged with overseeing a plan to end the violence, involving the withdrawal of troops from towns and cities and the opening of negotiations with the opposition.
He asked what right governments whose countries belong to the pan-Arab organisation, including the absolute monarchies of the Gulf, had to lecture Syria about democracy or reform.
"The first parliament in Syria was in 1917. Where were they then?" he asked. "Their situation is like a doctor who smokes and recommends to his patient to give up smoking while he, the doctor, has a cigarette in his mouth."
As the Security Council prepared to discuss the crisis, the Syrian opposition has stepped up its calls for the world body to take over the lead role from the Arab League in efforts to find a solution.
The Syrian National Council, the largest opposition umbrella group, hit out at the League over its decision to reinforce the observer mission rather than turn to the United Nations.
The group mocked a report from the observers which said the "killing has been reduced."
"The council considers the report on the work of the observers a step backwards in the efforts by the League, and does not reflect the reality seen by the observers on the ground," said an SNC statement.
It expressed disappointment at the "slowness and reluctance of the Arab League in implementing the Arab plan, which clearly states the need for the military to return to their barracks, release all detainees, authorise peace demonstrations and give access to observers and journalists."
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