A northern province of Iraq declared autonomy Thursday in response to a security sweep that has outraged Sunni communities, which say they are being unjustly targeted by the
Shiite-led central government.

Over the past three days, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces have detained more than 500 people in a campaign billed as an anti-insurgency operation but viewed by some as a gambit to consolidate sectarian power before the U.S. troop withdrawal.

The Salahuddin provincial council voted to “send a message” to the central government for its “continuous random arrests without legal cause,” said Niazi Oglu, the council’s general secretary.

The move is a symbolic vote of no confidence in the central government; autonomy can be obtained only through a referendum approved by Iraq’s parliament.

The assertion of autonomy is “confused, illegal and unconstitutional,” wrote Iraq historian Reidar Visser on his blog. “Basra and Wasit [provinces] have submitted such requests in the past without any response from the central government. The significant aspect of the Salahhadin bid is that it could put more pressure on Maliki to allow federal referendums.”

Maliki’s nationwide crackdown, which has targeted alleged former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, involved six months of planning and regular surveillance of suspects allegedly plotting a coup, according to the Interior Ministry. “The investigations have uncovered ties between the Baathists and al-Qaeda,” including financial and logistical support, said Adnan al-Asadi, a deputy interior minister. “The investigations have led us to uncover that the Baath Party is planning to reorganize itself in Iraq.”

One of the detainees is Jimaah Essa, an elderly former staff general under Hussein who was arrested in June but found not guilty of aiding the insurgency. Two days ago, he was arrested again, and his family doesn’t know why. “We have no idea where they have taken him, and we don’t know when he will be free again,” said his son, who declined to give his name.

The mass arrests followed the controversial dismissal of 140 faculty members from the University of Tikrit by the Ministry of Higher Education, whose spokesman said it was simply following the parliamentary directive on de-Baathification, according to the news Web site Niqash. Others view the events as early indicators of national disintegration.

“Such decisions will ultimately lead to sectarian strife and spark a civil war again,” Ali al-Jibouri, a political science professor at the University of Baghdad, told Niqash.

Salahuddin province is Hussein’s birthplace and home to the city of Samarra, where the 2006 bombing of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines accelerated the sectarian warfare that necessitated the U.S. military surge.

Sectarian tensions remain a concern as U.S. troops depart Iraq at an average of 520 a day. President Obama confirmed last week that all 39,000 troops still stationed in Iraq will be withdrawn by Dec. 31, though Washington and Baghdad continue to negotiate a reduced, nonmilitary security training presence for 2012.

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan in Baghdad, Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Asaad Majeed in Irbil contributed to this report.