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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraqi Health Official Kidnapped

BAGHDAD -- U.S. and Iraqi forces detained Iraq's deputy health minister Thursday, a senior member of a radical Shiite political group, in the first major sign that a security crackdown in Baghdad was under way.

The U.S. military, without naming anyone, said a senior Health Ministry official had been detained on suspicion of infiltrating rogue members of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army militia into the ministry.

Ministry officials and witnesses said Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili, from Sadr's movement, was detained during the raid by U.S. and Iraqi forces on Baghdad's Health Ministry.

"He is suspected of funding rogue JAM through large-scale employment of militia members," a U.S. military statement said, using the acronym for the militia. "These militia members are reported to target Iraqi civilians using Health Ministry facilities and services for sectarian kidnapping and murder. The suspect's corruption is believed to have funneled millions of U.S. dollars into rogue JAM."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has pledged to tackle both Shiite and Sunni militants in the Baghdad offensive. Critics say a previous offensive failed because he avoided going after Shiites tied to parties in his coalition.

Zamili's brother, a Health Ministry employee, denied the accusations.

"When they arrest anyone from the Sadr movement they make these sorts of accusations," he said. The U.S. military has stepped up operations against some Sadr supporters and the Mahdi Army, which the U.S. military accuses of widespread sectarian kidnappings and killings.

The detention came a day after the U.S. military said the long-awaited Baghdad offensive had begun, seen as a final attempt to halt Iraq's slide toward all-out civil war.

An official in Sadr's political movement accused the U.S. military of trying to provoke a confrontation and urged the Iraqi government to take immediate action to free the official.

Zamili's arrest could put Maliki in a bind because of his reliance on Sadr for political support in parliament. There was no immediate comment from Maliki's office.