Iraqi forces began a major security operation in northeastern Diyala province today, officials said, in the latest crackdown on Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militias. Sunni Islamist al Qa'eda has sought to stoke tensions in religiously and ethnically mixed Diyala, where a series of bomb attacks have killed scores of people. Suicide bombers killed 27 people in the provincial capital Baquba, 65 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, this month alone.
"The operations started today with raids in Baquba," The defence ministry's spokesman Major-general Mohammad al Askari said on Iraqiya state television. Al Qa'eda is orienting its activities more towards northern Iraq after being forced from former strongholds in Baghdad and Iraq's west. Details of troop numbers involved in the operation were not immediately available. The US military has said the crackdown would be run by Iraqi forces with minimal US involvement.
Large numbers of US troops took part in a big crackdown in Diyala last year, but insurgents have proved resilient. Women in particular have carried out numerous suicide attacks in Diyala. Al Qa'eda has increasingly used female suicide bombers because they are less likely to be as thoroughly searched. "The aim is to completely cleanse Diyala province. The Iraqi army will be executing this operation," said Major-general Abdul-Kareem al Rubaie, the commander of Diyala security operations.
Similar offensives elsewhere in Iraq, including in Basra city in Iraq's south and Baghdad's Sadr City slum both once strongholds of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army have been largely successful. The US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, said yesterday that Iraq's security forces might be able to take on security responsibility for the whole country by the end of 2009.
Iraqi forces have responsibility for security in 10 of the 18 provinces. However, the US military has repeatedly said recent security gains are fragile and reversible. Yesterday suicide bombers killed nearly 60 people in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk. *Reuters with AFP