WASHINGTON (AP) _ A top U.S. commander in Europe today countered Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's call to lift the Bosnia arms embargo, saying such a move would widen the war and endanger thousands of U.N. peacekeepers.

Adm. Leighton W. Smith Jr., commander of NATO forces in southern Europe, also said intensifying air strikes as Dole advocates would accomplish little.

``My fear is that there would be a fairly immediate escalation,'' Smith told defense reporters at a breakfast meeting in Washington. ``It puts those forces that are on the ground now in a more difficult situation.''

His comments come two days after Dole, R-Kan., made the lifting of the United Nations arms embargo over Bosnia one of his first legislative priorities in the new Congress. Dole, backed by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, argues that the embargo creates an unfair military advantage for Bosnian Serb forces, who have been seen as the aggressors in the Balkan conflict.

If the United Nations keeps the embargo in place, Dole wants the United States to unilaterally defy the weapons ban and begin arming the Bosnian government.

``There are those who claim that peace is around the corner. No question, I would like to believe that, but I have heard it too many times,'' Dole said.

The Clinton administration has resisted Dole's efforts, arguing that defying the embargo would create a rift in the Atlantic alliance and risk pulling the United States into the conflict.

Smith, a four-star admiral who also commands U.S. naval forces in Europe, echoed the administration line but added his own insight as a military commander.

``A unilateral lifting of the embargo would very much risk a rift in the alliance,'' Smith said. ``It's clear that that's a fairly emotional issue.''

Among other things, it might draw Iran into the war in support of the Muslim-backed Bosnian government, Smith said. It could lead the Bosnian Serbs to immediately raid the U.N. weapons confiscation centers where heavy weapons have been placed under international guard. It would endanger the roughly 23,000 peacekeepers who are spread throughout Bosnia and could force the United States to participate in a dangerous evacuation operation.

Smith also questioned whether intensified U.S. air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions would accomplish anything. After lifting of the embargo, he said, the ground-based ``forward air controllers'' who help aircraft find targets would be pulled out of the country. The warplanes would be flying blind, he said.