BAGHDAD – Iraqi authorities announced Sunday that they had revoked the operating licenses of pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine other satellite TV channels, alleging that they are promoting a sectarian agenda as the country grapples with a wave of violence.
The move, effective immediately, comes as Baghdad tries to quell rising unrest in the country following clashes at a protest camp last week.
More than 180 people have been killed in gunbattles with security forces and other attacks since the unrest began Tuesday. The violence follows more than four months of largely peaceful protests by Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority against the Shiite-dominated government.
Al-Jazeera, based in the small, energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, said it was "astonished" by the move.
"We cover all sides of the stories in Iraq, and have done for many years. The fact that so many channels have been hit all at once though suggests this is an indiscriminate decision," it said in an emailed statement.
"We urge the authorities to uphold freedom for the media to report the important stories taking place in Iraq," it added.
The channel has aggressively covered the "Arab Spring" uprisings across the region, and has broadcast extensively on the civil war in neighboring Syria. Qatar itself is a harsh critic of the Syrian regime and a leading backer of the rebels, and is accused by many supporters of Iraq's Shiite-led government of backing protests in Iraq too.
Iraq and other governments across the Middle East have temporarily shut down Al-Jazeera's offices in the past because they were disgruntled by its coverage.
The other nine channels whose licenses were suspended by Iraq's Communications and Media Commission are al-Sharqiya and al-Sharqiya News, which frequently criticize the government, and seven smaller local channels — Salahuddin, Fallujah, Taghyeer, Baghdad, Babiliya, Anwar 2 and al-Gharbiya.
In a statement posted on its website, the commission blamed the banned stations for the escalation of a sectarian backdrop that is fueling the violence that followed the deadly clashes at the Hawija camp on Tuesday.
Iraq's media commission accused the stations of misleading and exaggerated reports, as well as of airing "clear calls for disorder and for launching retaliatory criminal attacks against security forces." It also blamed the stations for promoting "banned terrorist organizations who committed crimes against Iraqi people."
The decree states that if the 10 stations try to work on Iraqi territory, they will face legal action from security forces.
Signals of their broadcasts, however, remained available to Iraqi viewers Sunday.
The decision came as Iraq's embattled Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, made a rare appearance at an official funeral for five soldiers killed by gunmen in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province Saturday. Local police in the province said the soldiers were killed in a gunbattle after their vehicle was stopped.
The United States Embassy condemned the killing, and described the soldiers as unarmed.
"There is no justification for this crime, and we welcome the calls by local and national leaders in Anbar Province to bring the perpetrators to justice as soon as possible," it said in a statement Thursday evening.
The Embassy last week raised concerns about the clashes in Hawija, without assigning blame for the incident. In its latest statements, it again called for an urgent and transparent investigation.
Authorities gave protest organizers a 24-deadline to hand over the gunmen behind the killing or face a "firm response." No one has been handed over and the deadline passed.
Wrapped in Iraqi flags, the five caskets were loaded on military trucks next to flower bouquets, as soldiers held pictures of the deceased and grieved families gathered outside the Defense Ministry building in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
"We hope that the chieftains of tribes and key figures in Anbar province who carried out an honorable role and condemned the act will exert their utmost efforts to hand over the killers," Ministry spokesman General Mohammed al-Askari said. "Certainly we support the peaceful solutions of wise men," al-Askari added.