BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — 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.

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 parliament speaker and two deputies.

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

But al-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.

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.

Alliance negotiator Jawad al-Maliki said the Sunni Arabs were expected to name a candidate for the parliament’s speaker position today.

Al-Naqib predicted that militants will target today’s National Assembly meeting — only the second since the parliament was elected nearly two months ago in the nation’s first free election in 50 years. The lawmakers met March 16 but repeatedly have postponed a second meeting because of negotiations over Cabinet positions.

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, just short of the Green Zone.

Underscoring tensions with the country’s majority 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, Capt. Muthana al-Furati of the Hillah police force said. 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 others resting at the compound, 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 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the Shiite religion’s top saints.

In a news conference, al-Naqib outlined progress by the country’s fledgling security forces, predicting that U.S. troops would be able to begin slowly pulling out of parts of the country, and that “hopefully, within 18 months at the most we will be capable of securing Iraq.”

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

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