by Hassan al-Obeidi – Sat Nov 15, 2:21 pm ET
TIKRIT, Iraq (AFP) – Thousands of Sunni and Shiite Arabs took to the streets across Iraq Saturday to defend Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against criticism from leaders of the country's Kurdish minority.
Demonstrations were held in the northern Sunni town of Tikrit -- the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein -- the once-restive Sunni town of Hawijah, and the mostly Shiite southern cities of Karbala, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Samawah, and Hilla, AFP correspondents said.
They came out to protest remarks made earlier this week by Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani, who accused Maliki of illegally allying with tribes in areas with large Kurdish populations to expand the power of the state.
In his remarks Barzani had compared the tribal alliances -- which Maliki refers to as "Support Councils" -- to the so-called Jackass Brigades of Kurds who fought for Saddam against Kurdish rebels from the 1980s up until 2003.
The dispute has exposed yet another potentially explosive faultline in a country still scarred by sectarian tensions that until a few months ago had transformed large parts of Iraq into grisly battlefields.
In Tikrit hundreds of Sunni tribesmen demonstrated in support of the Shiite prime minister, waving signs saying, "We want a unified Iraq" and "Kirkuk and Mosul and Diyala are Iraqi," referring to the three most disputed areas.
"The Iraqi tribes are with the national positions of Maliki in preserving the unity of Iraq, establishing the rule of law, and rewriting the constitution," said Farhan al-Aud, an MP and Maliki advisor from the province.
"There are no disputed areas. This is one country," he added.
Maliki has credited the mostly tribal councils with helping his forces route insurgents and militias, while the Kurds have viewed them as a power grab that could endanger their aspirations for a greater autonomous region.
"Those who oppose the plan of Maliki, they want Iraq to remain weak and to continue the project of dividing it up," said Ahmed al-Dulaimi, a member of the Support Council in the Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital.
In the oil-rich Kirkuk province -- hotly disputed and fractured into Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen communities -- thousands of Arabs gathered at a football stadium outside Hawijah, once a hotbed of the country's Sunni insurgency.
"All of Hawijah calls out to Maliki, Glory of our country!" the crowd chanted, reprising a slogan once used at rallies for Saddam. "With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Kirkuk!" they cried.
Sheikh Barhan Mazhar al-Asi, an Arab member of Kirkuk provincial council, said the demonstrators had gathered to assert that "Kirkuk is Iraqi."
Iraqi Kurds, many of whom see Kirkuk's oil wealth as vital to the future viability of their region, have called for it to be placed inside their autonomous zone, a plan deeply opposed by the province's Arab community.
"The Support Brigades are nothing more than a way of providing stability and security, to restore the balance among state institutions and guarantee the rights of all communities in Kirkuk," Asi said.
At a similar demonstration in the Shiite holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad hundreds of tribesmen demonstrated in front of the governorate.
Provincial governor Aqil al-Khazali rejected Kurdish accusations that the Support Councils are unconstitutional.
"Where is the violation when the government embraces the Iraqi tribes for the future of a new Iraq," he told the crowd.
"Do they want to talk about the list of (their) violations? Is allocating 17 percent of the budget (to them) constitutional? Are the Peshmerga constitutional?" he said referring to the powerful Kurdish militia.
Most of Iraq's roughly five million Kurds live in the three northernmost provinces, which are governed by Barzani and are largely autonomous. The Kurds have long wanted to expand the zone, however, to include other Kurdish areas.