Iraq's prime minister said Saturday that 615 people have been detained in a security sweep targeting members of the former ruling Baath party.
Arrests on this scale are likely to alarm Sunni Arabs, who consider use of the term "Baathists" by Iraq's Shiite-dominated government to be a coded way to refer to Sunni politicians, army officers, and other prominent members of their community.
Sunnis say that Baghdad sometimes uses crackdowns on Baathists as a tool to exert political pressure. The arrests coincide with a recent autonomy push by a mostly-Sunni province in north-central Iraq, the latest bone of contention between Sunni political blocs and the Baghdad government.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki revealed the size of the sweep in comments released Saturday by the state-run Iraqiya TV channel during which he defended the detentions.
He said officials had reason to believe the people arrested were a threat to security but he gave no further details. He did not say when the sweep took place, but a Ministry of Interior statement Thursday said about 500 people had been arrested in recent days.
"The recent arrests, which were carried out by the security forces and were based on information and evidence, were aimed at those who threaten the state security and the state stability. There were 615 detained people," al-Maliki said.
"The Baath Party is prohibited by the Constitution, because it is a criminal party that led to the fall of the national sovereignty and it targeted the Iraqi people through the mass graves, chemical weapons," he said.
The Baath Party ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein but now is outlawed under Iraqi law, and the prime minister has often accused ex-Baathists of planning terrorist attacks across the country.
Many Sunnis, who were disproportionately represented in the party leadership, feel the attacks against Baathists are a thinly veiled way to go after Sunnis.
A leading Sunni lawmaker, Hamid al-Mutlaq, said the arrests would heighten tensions in Iraq and called the allegations of undermining security "science fiction." He called on the government to move forward instead of arresting people for their past connections to the Baath Party.
"Such acts by the government will anger a lot of people in Anbar, Salahuddin and other Iraqi provinces and this might even threaten the unity of the country and might revive the calls for dividing Iraq," he said, referring to Sunni-majority provinces in western and central Iraq.
"It is the worst time to make these arrests ahead of the U.S. withdrawal," he said.
All American forces are to leave Iraq by the end of this year. Many Sunnis are worried that they will come under increased pressure from the Shiite-led government once the Americans, who they feel have often played a moderating influence, are gone.
De-Baathification, a concept started under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority which ruled Iraq after the invasion, is an Iraqi government policy of trying to purge important government jobs and positions of former mid- and high-ranking members of the Baath Party. Sunnis have criticized the policy as a way to sideline them from policy decisions and prevent them from ever regaining power.
The prime minister also criticized officials in Salahuddin province, which is a mainly Sunni area north of Baghdad, for a vote they took pushing to establish an autonomous region.
Provincial officials Thursday voted to start the process of creating an autonomous region in Salahuddin, akin to the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.
Provincial officials and residents have complained that their needs aren't being met by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and that they could do a better job providing for their own security.
The Iraqi constitution allows provinces to establish autonomous regions but it requires numerous procedural hoops making it unlikely the Salahuddin vote would be anything more than a ceremonial protest.
Al-Maliki said the Baath Party is trying to use Salahuddin province as a "safe haven."
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.