updated 10/23/2006 10:47:12 AM ET 2006-10-23T14:47:12

The fledgling Iraqi government must "step up and take more responsibility" for the country's security, a high-ranking White House official said Monday.

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At the same time, Dan Bartlett denied in a television interview that the Bush administration's war policy has been a sweeping "stay the course" commitment, saying "what we aren't doing is sitting there with our heads in the sand."

In contrast to earlier White House statements, Bartlett did not deny a New York Times 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.

Demonstrable milestones and benchmarks
"I was a bit puzzled about the report over the weekend because it was stating something that we've been talking publicly about for months," the senior White House counselor said on CBS's "The Early Show." Bartlett said the goal is to "define demonstrable milestones and benchmarks" and said it has been "very much a part of our strategy all along."

The White House earlier had said the report in Sunday's editions of the Times was not accurate. Bartlett said he thought it "might have been overwritten."

"It's never been a stay the course strategy," he said. "The enemy we're fighting is a very determined one. They're very lethal. ... But we are going to prevail and it's going to require the Iraqis themselves to step up and take more responsibility, and that's something we'll be impressing on them in the weeks and months ahead."

International plea
Meanwhile, 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 President Bush has made clear if they want them, they'll get them."

Democratic disagreement
Sen. Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said "I was amazed by this statement by Dan Bartlett that we've always been flexible."

"It's a civil war," Biden said on CBS. "They still talk about this being a war against terrorists." He said U.S. forces cannot "stand down" because the Iraqi Army "can't stand together."

Bartlett, appearing on CNN, said that "if we do as some have suggested - let's just set a timetable and get out as quickly as possible - that can only embolden the enemy, it could only provide sanctuary for terrorism and that's going to be a situation that makes our country less secure and that's something the president is not going to accept."

Stating expectations for the government led by Nouri al-Maliki is something the administration has been "working on for months with the Iraqis," he added. "We've been negotiating with them to discuss exactly what those goals and milestones would look like," Bartlett said.

Said Biden: "You say to Maliki, ,'Look, you get a political settlement here."

He said that Bush should say to Iraq's neighbors, 'We're going to agree on this political solution and get out.' "

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

Biden, D-Delaware, 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."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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