- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

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 claims he was subjected to electric shocks 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 U.S. Embassy in Baghdad 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 later this year.

Iraq is going backwards, 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 mostly 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.

The government has tried to respond by firing unpopular regional governors and delaying the purchase of jet fighters to divert money to food, among other measures. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has cut his own salary and promised to serve only two terms.

Mr. al-Maliki last week called for an investigation of abuses of protesters and vowed to protect journalists. But he also has portrayed the people who do take part in the protests in a bad light by at one point saying they were backed by al Qaeda and supporters of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

The harassment that protesters, activists and journalists say they have undergone has been extensive:

*In the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the bodies of three protesters turned up the day after the Feb. 25 demonstration. Police said all three took part in the demonstration. They were shot in the head with their hands bound.

The police spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The father of one of the three said his son - just 15 years old - took part in the demonstration because he simply wanted a better life.

“He was a peaceful person trying to participate in a peaceful demonstration,” said Rajih al-Hadidi.

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