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Barack Obama opened his remarks to the UN General Assembly with a tribute to the U.S. ambassador killed in Libya.SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the main body of the United Nations for the last time in his current term Tuesday, keeping one eye fixed on posterity and the other on the ballot box.

In a sweeping 30-minute address, Mr. Obama focused on the perilous transition to democracy under way in parts of the Muslim world and urged leaders to confront the causes of the recent violence that has rippled across those countries.

He also issued a stern warning to Iran against developing nuclear weapons and reiterated that the current regime in Syria – which "tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings" – must go.

Mr. Obama condemned extremism and urged world leaders to abandon the "politics of division." He left unanswered many questions about the course of foreign policy in a potential second term, including his strategies for tackling thorny problems like Iran and Syria.

Mr. Obama opened his remarks to the annual UN General Assembly with a tribute to Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed two weeks ago during a spasm of anti-American violence in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. More than 50 people have died in the unrest, which was sparked by an anti-Islamic video made in the United States and uploaded to the Internet.

"We must affirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers," Mr. Obama said. "We must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations."

The anti-Islam video at the centre of the latest turmoil was "crude and disgusting" and "an insult" to American Muslims as well as those around the world.

But he also offered an eloquent explanation of the commitment to free speech enshrined in the American Constitution. As President, he added, "I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day and I will always defend their right to do so." The comment drew a burst of applause from the assembled leaders and diplomats.

The recent violence has emerged as a foreign-policy flashpoint in Mr. Obama's campaign for re-election. His rival, Republican Mitt Romney, has repeatedly condemned the President's statements on the crisis, arguing he has failed to respond effectively and accusing him of apologizing for U.S. values.

Speaking to a packed chamber, Mr. Obama had tough words for Iran, saying that the United States will "do what we must" to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

"Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained," Mr. Obama said. "It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the stability of the global economy."

Mr. Obama's comments are aimed at ratcheting up the pressure on Iran and reassuring Israel, whose Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has publicly demanded he articulate the "red lines" that would serve as the trigger for military action against Iran. Mr. Obama declined to specify such triggers on Tuesday.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address the General Assembly on Wednesday. If the pattern of previous years holds, he is likely to make inflammatory remarks about Israel and some diplomats will protest his presence by walking out of the chamber.

Mr. Obama's speech on Tuesday was a momentary break from the campaigning that will absorb his time in the weeks remaining until the November election. His address had a dual audience, both the diplomats in attendance and the broader American electorate.

It's the second audience that is of paramount importance: Mr. Obama spent only a single day in New York and unlike in previous years, he didn't have any face-to-face meetings with global leaders. That task has fallen to his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Obama arrived in the city on Monday and taped a segment of the talk show The View . Following his speech at the UN, he gave an impassioned address on combating human trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual event hosted by former president Bill Clinton that brings together philanthropists, business leaders and development specialists.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama's challenger, Mr. Romney, also spoke at the Clinton forum. He didn't mention the President by name, but issued some oblique criticism in a speech mainly focused on the power of free enterprise.

Current developments in the Middle East make Americans "feel that we are at the mercy of the events, rather than shaping events," Mr. Romney said.

He also paid homage to Mr. Clinton , who introduced Mr. Romney, and spoke about working with him when he was governor of Massachusetts .

"If there's one thing we've learned in this election season, it's that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good," Mr. Romney said in response, drawing laughter from the crowd.