- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s outgoing interior minister predicted yesterday 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.

“We hope that next summer there will be a huge reduction in the numbers of multinational patrols,” Falah Hassan al-Nakib said. “In some cities, there will be no foreign troops at all.”

Mr. al-Nakib said Iraqi police had better intelligence on local insurgents and criminal gangs that have flourished since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and predicted the insurgency “will collapse very soon.”

He said Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi, “has been surrounded in more than one area, and we hope for the best.”

Mr. al-Nakib gave no timeline for a complete U.S. withdrawal, something U.S. officials have repeatedly said hinges on the security situation in Iraq and the wishes of the Iraqi government.

In an interview Sunday with CNN’s “Late Edition,” Army Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said Iraqi forces had made progress, although challenges remained.

“By the end of 2005, provided the political process continues to be successful, you will see the Iraqis more and more in charge, and in some areas completely in charge,” Gen. Abizaid said.

Mr. al-Nakib’s comments at a Baghdad press conference 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 parliament speaker and two deputies.

Negotiators haggled over who would get the parliament speaker job, considering interim President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer. They hope the inclusion of Sunni Arabs like him in the new government will help quell the Sunni-led insurgency.

But Mr. al-Yawer turned down the post and instead asked the Shi’ite-led United Iraqi Alliance for the vice president’s post, said Ali Faisal, political coordinator for the Shi’ite Political Council, which is part of the alliance.

Alliance members agreed to nominate former nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani as one of two deputy parliament speakers and interim Finance Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi as one of two vice presidents.

Mr. al-Nakib predicted that militants will target today’s National Assembly meeting.

Roads were blocked off yesterday, and security was tightened around the area, already surrounded by concrete blast walls and barbed wire. Several mortar rounds slammed into the banks of the Tigris River.

Underscoring tensions with the country’s majority Shi’ites — who make up 60 percent of Iraq’s estimated 26 million people — insurgents set off two explosions targeting Shi’ite pilgrims heading to Karbala for a major religious ceremony.

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