BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's Shiite-led government cracked down harshly on dissent during the past year of Arab Spring uprisings, turning the country into a "budding police state" as autocratic regimes crumbled elsewhere in the region, an international rights groups said Sunday.
Iraqi security forces routinely abuse protesters, harass journalists, torture detainees and intimidate activists, Human Rights Watch said in the Iraq chapter of its annual report.
"Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based group. "Despite U.S. government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy (in Iraq), the reality is that it left behind a budding police state."
Iraqi officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Protests against Iraq's U.S.-backed and democratically elected government erupted around the country in February 2011, partly inspired by demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world.
While protests in other countries demanded the downfall of autocratic regimes, most of the demonstrations in Iraq pushed for improved services like reliable electricity and water, and an end to corruption.
The government clamped down, sometimes leading to bloodshed — 14 people were killed in clashes between security forces and civilians across the country during the Feb. 25 protests billed as the "Day of Rage."
A year later, with U.S. troops withdrawn and Iraq's government mired in a political crisis, anti-government protests have all but died out. The few demonstrators who still gather in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square on Fridays are usually outnumbered by the security forces watching over them.
"Iraqis are quickly losing ground on the most basic of rights, including the right to free speech and assembly," said Samer Muscati, an Iraq researcher for the group. "Nowadays, every time someone attends a peaceful protest, they put themselves at risk of attack and abuse by security forces or their proxies."
Prison brutality, including torture in detention facilities, was a major problem throughout the year, the group's report said.
In February 2011, Human Rights Watch uncovered a secret detention center controlled by elite forces who reported to the prime minister's military office.
The group claimed authorities transferred more than 280 detainees to the facility since the beginning of 2010 and charged detainees were tortured there with impunity. Government officials denied the facility's existence and alleged abuses.
Just days before the U.S. military withdrew its last troops from the country last month, authorities rounded up hundreds of Iraqis suspected of having links to the deposed Baath Party, the group said in its report. It added that at least 600 of those detained in the sweep remain in custody without being charged.
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Iraq has plunged into a worsening political crisis that pits the country's majority Shiites against the minority Sunnis.
The escalating political battle erupted after the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant against the Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges. Al-Hashemi denies the charges and has fled to the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, out of reach from Baghdad authorities.
Two other top Sunni officials were detained on terrorism charges earlier this week, prompting Ayad Allawi, the leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc to accuse al-Maliki of unfairly targeting Sunni politicians and deliberately triggering a political crisis to cement his own grip on power.
Allawi, who is a Shiite, said on Wednesday that Iraq needs a new prime minister or new elections to prevent the country from disintegrating along sectarian lines.
An aide to Allawi told The Associated Press that 89 Iraqiya members have been detained in the past three months by security forces on terrorism-related charges. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The political crisis has been coupled with a surge in violence that has killed more than 160 people since the beginning of the year.
On Sunday, gunmen attacked a checkpoint near Baqouba, a former al-Qaida stronghold north of Baghdad, killing three members of the security forces, police officials in Diyala province said.
The officials said that two of dead were members of the pro-government Sunni militia known as the Awakening Council. Hospital staff in Baqouba confirmed the death toll.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.