MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched a new military campaign they hope will put an end to a stubborn insurgency in restive Nineveh province, seen as a final holdout for Sunni Islamist militants, officials said on Sunday. Brigadier General Said Ahmed Abdullah, spokesman for the northern province’s military command, said local forces began searching homes and conducting widespread arrests on Friday as part of the new operation to oust al Qaeda militants.
He said 84 suspects had been detained so far in the province, which as violence drops across the country is now Iraq’s most dangerous area and seen as a haven for al Qaeda and other militants who launch car bombs and other attacks daily.
“‘Operation New Hope’ will allow the local and provincial governments to begin projects focusing on restoring essential services to the citizens of Mosul,” said Major Ramona Bellard, a U.S. military spokeswoman in northern Iraq.
While Bellard described it as a joint operation between U.S. and Iraqi forces, Abdullah said local troops would call on their U.S. counterparts for backup “only when required.”
The operation came less than a month after local elections brought a political sea change to Nineveh, where minority Kurds have dominated the provincial government since its majority Sunni Arabs boycotted elections in 2005.
Sunni Arabs’ lack of political power has been seen as fuelling much of the strife in Nineveh and its capital, Mosul, which six years after the U.S.-led invasion is still gripped by violence and in dire need of reconstruction and basic services.
Al-Hadba, a Sunni Arab bloc, swept last month’s vote in Nineveh and will dominate the provincial council from next month.
The Iraqi forces’ lead of the crackdown reflects the changing nature of military operations across Iraq as Washington prepares to withdraw troops by the end of 2011 under a bilateral security pact agreed last year.
The United States has poured billions of dollars into helping Iraq rebuild its forces, which were disbanded in 2003 by U.S. administrators and initially dominated by corruption, armed gangs and sectarianism when they were reformed.
Under the new security pact that took effect in January, Iraqi approval is required before U.S. troops can conduct combat operations, and U.S. combat troops are due to withdraw from Iraqi cities in the middle of next year.