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Iraq Transition

Bush: 'America will stand with the Iraqi people'

Iraqi president says he hopes his forces can take over in 2006

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Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and President Bush field questions.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Meeting Tuesday with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, President Bush renewed his pledge to assist Baghdad in building a democracy and to help the fledgling government defeat insurgents.

"America will stand with the Iraqi people as they move forward with the democratic process," Bush said at a joint news conference in the White House East Room.

"American troops will stay on the offensive, alongside Iraqi security forces, to hunt down our common enemies."

Talabani said he hopes that Iraqi forces will be ready to take full responsibility for the nation's security by the end of 2006.

"We will set no timetable for withdrawal," Talabani said. "A timetable will help the terrorists. ...

"As soon as possible, of course, we hope that American troops can proudly return home."

Iraqi and U.S. forces were continuing to battle insurgents in the north, Bush said.

"At this hour, American and Iraqi forces are conducting joint operations to root out terrorists and insurgents in Tal Afar," Bush said. "Our objective is to defeat the enemies of a free Iraq. And we're working to prepare more Iraqi forces to join the fight."

In addition to security issues, the Iraqi president faces a national referendum in October on Iraq's draft constitution.

Iraqi lawmakers are debating the draft constitution, which was approved by a special committee that wrote the document. Sunni Arabs dislike some aspects of the document, which has support from Shiite Arabs and Kurds in the government.

"We have agreed [to] a draft constitution," Talabani said. "Of course, it is not a perfect document. But I think it is one of the best constitutions in the Middle East."

The leaders both criticized Syria, accusing the country of allowing insurgents to enter Iraq across its border.

"The Syrian government can do a lot more to prevent the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq," Bush said. "These people are coming from Syria into Iraq and killing a lot of innocent people. They're killing -- they're trying to kill our folks as well."

Bush threatened increased international isolation for Damascus, accusing Syrian President Bashar Assad of not doing enough to secure the border. "The Syrian leader must understand we take his lack of action seriously," Bush said.

On Monday, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said that Syria is "the No. 1 offender" of impeding success in Iraq.

"There is blatant interference by Syria in Iraqi affairs, by allowing these terrorists to come across," Khalilzad said. "And as I said before, our patience is running out.

"We have given it every opportunity. The time is running out for more of the same."

When asked whether a military option against Syria was under consideration, Khalilzad said, "Everything is on the table."

Two of Iraq's four border crossings with Syria are closed -- one near Tal Afar and one farther south near Qaim.

Suspects detained in northern Iraq

In the Iraqi-U.S. operation in Tal Afar, multinational soldiers detained 78 suspected terrorists Monday, according to a U.S. military news release.

The suspects were taken into custody in separate operations, including door-to-door searches and military operations, with no injuries reported, the release said.

Operation Restore Rights was launched in Tal Afar two weeks ago to try to drive out insurgents around the northern Iraqi city.

The insurgency has forced an estimated 6,600 families to flee the area in recent months, a senior official with Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration said Monday.

The operation has focused on the Serai neighborhood in southeast Tal Afar, where U.S. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch estimated 350 to 500 insurgents, many of them foreign fighters, had been cornered.

Lynch said at least 141 terrorists have been killed and 236 captured since the operation began August 26.

The Islamic Army in Iraq -- a group that has claimed responsibility for attacks and kidnappings in the country -- posted a statement Sunday on a Web site saying it wanted to avenge the deaths of Sunnis in Iraq, including those killed in Tal Afar.

Other developments

  • Iraqi police Tuesday found six bodies near a garbage dump north of Baghdad. The victims were shot to death and blindfolded with their hands bound in Taji, a Baghdad emergency police official said. Also Tuesday, gunmen shot and killed an Interior Ministry police official near his car in central Baghdad, the police official said.
  • A roadside bomb struck a three-vehicle convoy Tuesday, wounding four security contractors near the southern city of Basra, Iraqi and U.S. officials said. The contractors -- whose nationalities are not known -- were not affiliated with the U.S. military mission or with coalition forces, U.S. officials said.
  • Two Kurdish construction workers were shot to death Tuesday morning in a drive-by shooting in southern Baghdad, Iraqi police said. A third worker was wounded in the attack. Earlier, police found the bodies of two men in southeastern Baghdad. Authorities said there were signs the men had been tortured.
  • On Monday, gunmen shot and killed three Sunni religious figures as they traveled by car north of Baquba, police said. The dead included Sheikh Hashim al-Khashali, Sheikh Mohammed al-Azawi and Sheik Hussein al-Azawi.
  • CNN's Arwa Damon contributed to this report.

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