While critical of President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, leading Democrats Tuesday stopped short of demanding immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war zone or even a timetable for cutting back combat operations.

Speaking on Capitol Hill before the president’s speech on Iraq at Fort Bragg, N.C., Democrats called for a U.S. strategy that would hasten the day that Iraqis can assume responsibility for their own security.

“Our commitment to Iraq does not have to be measured by timetables,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. “Nor should it be open-ended. But we must have benchmarks,” and the president should say how he plans to meet them, she said.

“We’re at a critical juncture in Iraq,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Bush should provide “a detailed plan for success,” he said.

The core theme of the Democrats was that the United States can still achieve worthwhile goals in Iraq, but that Bush needs to change course to achieve “a strategy for success.”

However, Democrats were cautious about using the occasion of the president’s speech to escalate the political attacks on Bush or fire up the rhetoric.

Democratic strategists signaled they were content to let the president, whose approval ratings in the polls have sunk to new lows, take his case to the public without Democratic leaders putting themselves at risk of appearing to undercut troops under fire.

“Our troops deserve better than they are getting,” said Sen. John Kerry, of Massachusetts, the unsuccessful 2004 election challenger to the president.

Contending that Bush is leading the United States in a “perilous direction,” Kerry called on the president to “admit mistakes,” to arm Iraqi tribal and ethnic militias, and to seek security aid from Egypt, Jordan, Germany and France.

Unless Bush changes course, Kerry warned, “we will stumble along, our troops at greater risk, our casualties rising, costs rising, the patience of the American people wearing thin, and the specter of quagmire staring us in the face.”

Using stronger language, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said the nation is “confronting a crisis of immense proportion in Iraq. . . . It’s coming faster than people realize.”