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President Bush contended on Thursday night that his plan to begin withdrawing some troops from Iraq gradually was based on a principle he called “return on success,” saying that progress made so far could be squandered by the deeper and speedier reductions that the war’s opponents have demanded.

At the same time, Bush called for an “enduring relationship” with Iraq that would keep American forces there “beyond my presidency,” saying a free and friendly Iraq was essential to the security of the region and the United States. He cast the war in Iraq as a vital part of a strategy in the Middle East to defeat al-Qaida and counter Iran.

Evidently sensitive to how lower troop levels might be seen — by enemies abroad and critics at home — he emphasized in his address that early drawdowns were now possible only because the strategy of sending more troops to Iraq eight months ago had worked. He did not once use the word withdrawal.

“The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home,” Bush said, trying once again to win support for a war in Iraq that remains deeply unpopular.

The speech was the first time since the war began four and a half years ago that Bush outlined a plan for troop reductions, to bring levels down from the current high of 169,000. He held out the prospect of more reductions but committed only to a plan that would withdraw by next July the additional combat units he ordered there in January, leaving a main body of more than 130,000 troops intact.

In the Democratic response, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate, said that Bush was making the case for an “endless and unlimited military presence in Iraq,” and he vowed that Congress would prevent it.

“Once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it,” said Reed, an author of a Democratic proposal to withdraw most combat troops by next spring but still leave a significant force in Iraq to provide training and security.

Bush’s 18-minute address culminated several weeks of political stagecraft that included several speeches and a presidential trip to Iraq but also heavy reliance by the White House on Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, to make the public case for a strategy overseen by the commander in chief.

While promoting progress in Iraq, Bush conceded that his vision for Iraq would be a difficult one to achieve. That acknowledgment was punctuated with macabre timing by the assassination in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, on Thursday of a Sunni sheik, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, who had led a group of tribal leaders into an alliance with the United States and who had met the president during his trip to Iraq only 10 days ago.

The White House clearly sought to maximize the political benefits from the announcement of a troop reduction, which some military officials said would have had to happen anyway unless the administration took the politically unpalatable step of extending troops’ tours in Iraq to longer than 15 months. The first 5,700 troops affected by the pullback would leave Iraq this year — “by Christmas,” Bush said — and roughly 18,000 more would do so by mid-July 2008.