BAGHDAD — A surge of protests against Iraq's U.S.-backed democratic government has provoked a violent crackdown on demonstrators and journalists that is raising concerns about a rollback of civil liberties throughout the country.
In recent weeks, journalists and activists have been detained and beaten by Iraqi security forces, TV and radio stations attacked in the dead of night, and protesters blocked from getting to demonstrations. In the most serious incidents, an Iraqi reporter said he was tortured with electricity and three people who went to a protest turned up dead the next morning.
The attacks on journalists have sparked a rare public demand by the U.S. government for accountability.
"We call on the Iraqi government and Kurdistan regional government authorities to follow through on their pledges to investigate these incidents fully and punish the perpetrators," the embassy said Monday.
The crackdown has raised doubts about how committed Iraq really is about protecting human rights and freedom of speech and what type of country U.S. troops will leave behind when they depart this year.
"Iraq is going backward, by all means, and in all aspects. The freedom of speech is in a very dire situation. People are afraid," said Shirouk Abayachi, director of the Baghdad-based Iraqiyat Center for Studies and Development.
Demonstrations inspired by unrest in Tunisia and Egypt have been held in cities and towns across Iraq almost daily since mid February, demanding better government services, an end to corruption and more jobs.
Fourteen people were killed during Feb. 25 protests billed as the Day of Rage, which saw confrontations between security forces and Iraqis across the country.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week called for an investigation of abuses of protesters and vowed to protect journalists. But he has also painted the people who do take part in the protests in a bad light by at one point saying they were backed by al-Qaida and supporters of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Ziyad al-Ajili, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said Iraqi journalists are under fierce attack. He said the organization has documented 24 cases of Iraqi journalists being detained since the Day of Rage.