Iraq suspends TV channels after deadly unrest

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq has suspended the licences of 10 satellite TV channels for promoting "sectarianism", the country's media regulator said on Sunday, as more than 220 people were killed over six days.

The bloody unrest, which began on Tuesday with deadly clashes between security forces and Sunni Arab anti-government protesters in north Iraq, has raised fears of a return to an all-out sectarian conflict that plagued the country in the past and killed tens of thousands.

"We took a decision to suspend the licence of some satellite channels that adopted language encouraging violence and sectarianism," Mujahid Abu al-Hail, a top official in the Communications and Media Commission, told AFP.

"It means stopping their work in Iraq and their activities, so they cannot cover events in Iraq or move around," Mr Hail said.

The suspensions include Al-Jazeera, the main broadcaster in the Arab world, and Sharqiya, a leading channel in Iraq.

"The fact that so many channels have been hit all at once ... suggests this is an indiscriminate decision," an Al-Jazeera spokesman told AFP.

"We urge the authorities to uphold freedom for the media to report the important stories taking place in Iraq," the spokesman said.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Saturday that sectarian strife "came back to Iraq, because it began in another place in this region," in an apparent reference to Syria.

The civil war in neighbouring Syria pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has killed more than 70,000 people.

Mr Maliki called in a statement on Saturday for anti-government protesters to "expel the criminals who targeted Iraqi army and police forces," after five soldiers were killed near a protest site close to Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

And Iraqiya state television quoted the head of the Sahwa anti-Al-Qaeda militia, Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan, as saying that if those who have killed soldiers are not handed over, "the Sahwa will take the requested procedures and do what it did in 2006."

A protest leader and a provincial official said on Sunday that the names of three people who allegedly killed the five soldiers were given to police, but they have not been handed over despite a 24-hour deadline set by Hardan.

Sahwa militiamen fought pitched battles against Sunni militants from 2006, helping to turn the tide of the Iraq war.

"We do not work for the government, and we are not army or police from the government," said Abdulrazzaq al-Shammari, one of the leaders of the protest near Ramadi.

"They are outside of the site of the protest, and we helped by giving their names," Mr Shammari said.

"The criminals were not handed over until now, but the police were given the names of three people who were said to be the ones who killed the soldiers," said Mohammed Fathi, a media advisor to the provincial council in Anbar province where the soldiers were killed.

The wave of violence began on Tuesday when security forces moved against Sunni anti-government protesters near the northern Sunni Arab town of Hawijah, sparking clashes that killed 53 people.

Subsequent unrest, much of it apparently linked to the Hawijah clashes, killed dozens more and brought the death toll to more than 220 by Sunday.

The violence was the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that broke out in Sunni areas of Shi'ite-majority Iraq more than four months ago.

The Sunni protesters have called for Mr Maliki's resignation and railed against authorities for allegedly targeting their community with wrongful detentions and accusations of involvement in terrorism.

On Sunday, gunmen armed with silenced weapons killed one person in the north Iraqi city of Mosul, while an army captain and a soldier were shot dead near Kirkuk, also in the country's north, police and doctors said.

While violence fell on Sunday compared to preceding days, another crisis was brewing in Kirkuk, where security forces from the autonomous Kurdistan region have deployed to new areas in what a top Iraqi army officer termed an attempt to move into oil fields in the province.

"Kirkuk is occupied again by the peshmerga (Kurdish forces)," Sheikh Mohammed Munshed al-Asi, the head of the Arab Political Council in Kirkuk, said on Sunday.

"What the Arab citizen sees is the presence of an occupying force," he said.

Oil-rich Kirkuk province and its eponymous capital are a key part of territory that Kurdistan wants to incorporate over strong objections from the federal government in Baghdad, a dispute diplomats and officials say is a major threat to long-term stability.