By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday criticized local officials for claiming autonomy in Salahuddin province and said former members of Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party wanted to use the area as a safe haven.
Iraq arrested hundreds of former military officers and members of the Baath Party this week, a move some officials characterized as foiling a specific plot, while others said it was a precautionary measure before the U.S. withdrawal.
The United States is due to fully withdraw from Iraq by December 31, nearly nine years after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam.
"The Baath Party aims to use Salahuddin as a safe haven for Baathists and this will not happen thanks to the awareness of people in the province," Maliki said in a statement.
"Federalism is a constitutional issue and Salahuddin provincial council has no right to decide this issue ... Cabinet will definitely reject the decision of the Salahuddin provincial council."
On Thursday, the Salahuddin provincial council symbolically decided to declare the area autonomous. Provinces need a public referendum and parliamentary approval to attain autonomy.
Thousands of Iraqis blocked a highway in western Anbar province on Friday and demonstrators also rallied in Salahuddin province to protest against the Baathist arrest campaign that has angered minority Sunnis around the country.
Maliki said 615 people had been arrested, mainly from Iraq's central and southern provinces. He said the arrests had been based on strong evidence against those seeking to undermine security in Iraq.
Security and police officials had said on Tuesday Maliki had issued arrest warrants for around 350 former Baath Party members.
"They (Baathists) want to sustain stability in the province so they can use it as a launch pad for their operations in the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Mosul, Anbar and Baghdad," Maliki said.
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.
But local Anbar officials and tribal leaders called for the detainees to be released and returned to their provinces, saying failure to do so would result in further protests.
"We give him (Maliki) a deadline until next Monday and if the government doesn't respond there will be cases of civil disobedience and open continuous demonstrations in the cities of the governate," said Mamun Sami Rasheed, head of the local council in Anbar.
(Additional reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Sophie Hares)