BAGHDAD — 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.
Security forces 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," she said.
Protests against Iraq's U.S.-backed and democratically elected government erupted around the country in February 2011, alongside other demonstrations 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 sparking bloody clashes — as when 14 were killed in confrontations 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A year later, with U.S. troops withdrawn and Iraq's government mired in a political crisis, the protest movement has all but died out. Demonstrators who gather in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square 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," he said.
Prison brutality, including torture in detention facilities, was a major problem throughout the year, the group's annual report said.
In February 2011 Human Rights Watch uncovered a secret detention center, controlled by elite forces who report 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.
Two policemen and two gunmen were killed and a member of the government-backed Sunni Sahwa militia was wounded in a clash at a security checkpoint in a village near Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, police told Reuters on Sunday.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.