By Fadhel al-Badrani
FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Thousands of Iraqis blocked a highway in western Anbar province Friday to protest against a campaign to arrest former military officers and members of Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party.
In neighboring Salahuddin province, demonstrators took to the streets to support a symbolic move by the provincial council to declare the area autonomous, partly in protest of the Baathist round-up that has angered minority Sunnis across Iraq.
Some Iraqi officials said the arrests of scores of ex-Baathist former army officers this week were triggered by a specific plot against the government, while others said it was a precautionary move before the U.S. troop withdrawal.
"We are determined to get our message across to the central government. Our demand is the release of innocent detainees. said Ramadi farmer Mohammed al-Dulaimi, 45, one of some 3,000 protesters who blocked the highway linking Anbar with Jordan and Syria.
"These arrests will lead to increased sectarianism and tension," he said.
Thousands demonstrated in towns and cities across Salahuddin province, including Samarra, Shirqat and Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.
The Salahuddin provincial council's symbolic decision on Thursday was designed to send a message to the central government in Baghdad. Provinces need a public referendum and parliamentary approval to attain autonomy.
"I served Iraq more than 20 years," said Samarra resident Jassim Mohammed Hussein, a former soldier in Saddam's army. "I haven't received any salary since the occupation in 2003."
"I have come out today strongly in favor of autonomy because it is our only way to get rid of this unjust government," said Hussein, a jobless father of seven.
Authorities say more than 200 ex-Baathists and former high-ranking army officers have been arrested since the start of the round-up this week including dozens in Salahuddin, Diyala, Kirkuk, Basra, Nassiriya and Babil provinces.
Security and police officials said the government issued arrest warrants for around 350 former Baath Party members.
Government officials have long expressed concern that Baathists would try to retake power when U.S. troops depart. The party was banned after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, who was later tried and executed.
The ban was criticized by those who saw it as leaving an administrative vacuum in the aftermath of the invasion.
Military leaders have expressed concern that violence will rise as Washington withdraws the 39,000 remaining U.S. troops in Iraq by year-end.
(Additional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan; Writing by Muhanad Mohammed; Editing by Jim Loney and Angus MacSwan)