The White House said Monday that the fledgling Iraqi government must step up and take more responsibility for the country's security, but said the United States is not issuing ultimatums to Baghdad.

President Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, discounted a newspaper report saying the head of the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador were working on a plan that — for the first time — would set a specific timetable for disarming militias and meeting other political and economic goals.

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"There is still a very large to-do list before Iraq is in a position to sustain, government and defend itself," Snow said.

"Are we issuing ultimatums? No," he added.

White House officials said the United States has been working with the Iraqis for months, negotiating with them about goals and milestones.

"We're working collaboratively with them to figure out how best to do it," Snow said. "They've got more incentive than we do. The casualties on the Iraqi side are higher than they are on the British or the American side."

Bush discussed Iraq over the weekend with top commanders, and senior members of Bush's national security team attended White House meetings Monday. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, just back Asia and Russia, was first to show up. She was followed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Snow noted that Bush had announced on July 25, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Washington, the formation of the Joint Committee for Achieving Iraqi Security Self-reliance. He said the committee also was mentioned in a report on Iraq that the administration sent to Congress during the summer.

"There have been benchmarks that have been discussed together with the Iraqis, not merely on the security side but also on the economic and political side," Snow said.

Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, said he was puzzled by the weekend report in The New York Times. The newspaper said a blueprint to be presented to al-Maliki by the end of this year would not threaten Iraq with a withdrawal of U.S. troops. But it reported that the administration was considering changing military tactics and contemplating possible penalties if benchmarks were not reached. The White House denied that troop strength would be affected by the Iraqis' ability or inability to meet benchmarks.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh on Monday urged international forces to remain even in the face of the violence, saying it was no time to panic.

"I have to say, because there is too much of a pessimistic tone to this debate —even I would say in certain circles a defeatist tone," Saleh told the British Broadcasting Corp. before meeting in London with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Bartlett, appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," said the top commanders there have not asked for more troops, but that Bush has made it clear that if they want them, they'll get them.

Appearing on a cable network news network, he said setting a timetable for troop withdrawals would embolden the enemy, provide sanctuary for terrorists and threaten U.S. security. "That's something the president is not going to accept," Bartlett said.

Sen. Joseph Biden, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration is misrepresenting the war in Iraq, saying it is a battle against terrorists when it's a civil war. He said U.S. forces cannot stand down because the Iraqi Army cannot yet stand together.

Biden, D-Del., said the administration must take a tough stand against the Iraqi government to force it to assume more responsibility and make progress on economic, security and political fronts. Biden said the time is coming when the American public will no longer tolerate lives and money "being poured down a rathole because, in fact, we're in the middle of a civil war."

"The last time I said this, the president said, 'We can't tell the Iraqis what to do."' Biden said.

"Like heck, we can't tell the Iraqis what to do," the senator said. "It's our blood and treasure. ... We should tell them now, 'Get a political settlement, or you're on your own, Jack.' "