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President Bush said Thursday that the senior U.S. commander in Iraq could “have all the time he needs” before reducing U.S. forces there any further, but he promised shorter tours for troops and longer breaks for them at home.

Democrats responded by saying that no end was in sight to the U.S. troop commitment.

Bush defended the costs of the war, in lives and money, declaring that his decision to order more troops to Iraq last year had averted potential defeat there and that withdrawing would be catastrophic to U.S. interests.

Speaking at the White House to a small audience that included Vice President Dick Cheney, the secretaries of state and defense and representatives of veterans’ organizations, he signaled that a U.S. force nearly as large as at any other point in the last five years would remain in Iraq through his presidency. He left any significant changes in policy to the next president.

“Fifteen months ago, Americans were worried about the prospect of failure in Iraq,” he said, sounding a triumphant note about his decision last year to send 30,000 additional troops. “Today, thanks to the surge, we’ve renewed and revived the prospect of success.”

As was the case during two days of congressional testimony this week by the U.S. commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Democratic presidential candidates offered assessments that diverged sharply from Bush’s.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the president “refuses to face the reality that we are confronted by in Iraq.”

“It’s time for the president to answer the question being asked of him,” she said while campaigning in Pittsburgh. “In the wake of the failed objectives that were laid out to be met by the surge, what is the exit strategy in Iraq?”

Sen. Barack Obama echoed his rival for the Democratic nomination. “We have a blank check strategy in Iraq that is overstretching our military, distracting us from the other challenges we face, burdening our economy and failing to pressure the Iraqi government to take responsibility for their future,” he said in a statement.

With only nine months left in his presidency, Bush has begun making the case for a war that will continue, one way or another, under another commander-in-chief. He flatly restated his views on the war that will most define his legacy and set the terms of the debate over Iraq for the coming presidential election.

“Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: al-Qaida and Iran,” Bush said. “If we fail there, al-Qaida would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions, and they could gain safe havens in Iraq from which to attack the United States, our friends and our allies,” he said. “Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq, and our failure would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region.”

Bush’s focus on Iran, while not new, reflected deepening concerns in the administration and the Pentagon about suspected Iranian support for some extremists, which they say became increasingly evident during the indecisive Iraqi operation in late March to wrest control of Basra from Shiite militias and in a recent spate of rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad.