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Iraqis may handle own security in 18 months, official says

Associated Press
Published March 29, 2005

BAGHDAD - Iraq's outgoing interior minister predicted Monday that his country's emerging police and army may be capable of securing the nation in 18 months, saying his officers are beginning to take over from coalition forces.

Insurgents, meanwhile, targeted Shiite pilgrims, setting off two blasts that killed at least three people.

Interim Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib's comments came as security was heightened in the already heavily fortified Green Zone, where the National Assembly will hold its long-awaited second session today to choose a speaker and two deputies.

Negotiators haggled over who would get the speaker job, considering interim President Ghazi al-Yawer. But Yawer turned down the post and instead asked the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance for the vice president's post, said Ali Faisal, political coordinator for the Shiite Political Council, which is part of the alliance.

Underscoring tensions with the country's Shiites - who make up 60 percent of Iraq's estimated 26-million people - insurgents set off two explosions targeting Shiite pilgrims heading to Karbala for a major religious ceremony.

In Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad, a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up near a police patrol protecting the pilgrims, said Capt. Muthana al-Furati of the Hillah police force. Two policemen were killed. The attack wounded two other officers and three civilians.

The other bombing took place at the Imam al-Khedher shrine compound in Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad. The attack killed one pilgrim and wounded two, Col. Abdullah Hessoni Abdullah said.

Pilgrims travel to Karbala to mark al-Arbaeen, the end of a 40-day mourning period after the anniversary of the seventh century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the Shiites' top saints.

In a news conference, Naqib outlined progress by the country's fledgling security forces.

He said Iraqi police had better intelligence on local insurgents and criminal gangs that have flourished since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, helping reduce the number of casualties caused by car bombs and other attacks.

[Last modified March 29, 2005, 01:32:11]

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