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Iraq begins crackdown in restive Diyala province

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police launched a major security operation in northeastern Diyala province on Tuesday in the latest move by the government to stamp its authority over militants.

Sunni Islamist al Qaeda has sought to stoke tensions in religiously and ethnically mixed Diyala, where a series of bomb attacks have killed scores of people in recent months.

Defence Ministry spokesman Major-General Mohammed al-Askari said the operation commenced with raids in the local capital Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad.

Askari said police and more than two Iraqi army divisions were taking part in the operation. There are between 7,000 and 9,000 soldiers in an Iraqi army division.

“The operation targets terrorist groups and outlaws ... we have confirmed information that the province is the last al Qaeda stronghold,” Askari said on Iraqiya state television.

Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops have also been carrying out extensive operations in the northern Nineveh province, where al Qaeda is blamed for numerous attacks.

Al Qaeda regrouped in parts of northern Iraq after a succession of military operations as well as a decision by Sunni Arab tribes to turn against the militant organisation forced it to flee havens in Baghdad and western Anbar province.

Askari said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was paying close attention to the Diyala operation because security there had an impact on nearby Baghdad.

Three female suicide bombers killed 35 people in the capital on Monday, attacks that echoed a string of strikes carried out by women in Diyala this year.

Al Qaeda has increasingly used women suicide bombers because they can escape stringent security checks.

A Reuters witness said large numbers of Iraqi police and army personnel had deployed in Baquba, where they were searching homes. The U.S. military was present in small numbers backed by helicopters, the witness said.

“The aim is to completely cleanse Diyala province. The Iraqi army will be executing this operation,” said Major-General Abdul-Kareem al-Rubaie, commander of Diyala security operations.

Similar Iraqi-led offensives in Basra in Iraq’s south and Baghdad’s Sadr City -- both once strongholds of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi army -- have been largely successful.

Iraqiya television reported Maliki had set aside $100 million for reconstruction in Diyala, echoing similar plans to boost spending elsewhere in Iraq to cement security gains with investment and jobs.

The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, told Reuters on Monday 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 U.S. military has repeatedly said recent security gains are fragile and reversible.

Monday’s attacks in Baghdad and another suicide bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk killed nearly 60 people.

Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Writing by Mohammed Abbas