- Iraq says shuttered stations were "encouraging criminal activities"
- The decree stems from coverage of last week's clashes in northern Iraq
- "We cannot cover anything now," one reporter says
Iraq's government ordered 10 television networks shut down Sunday, accusing them of stoking sectarian violence with "unprofessional" and "unethical" coverage of recent clashes in the country's north.
Sunday's order from the Communications and Media Commission includes the Qatar-based satellite network Al Jazeera and eight outlets aimed at the country's Sunni Arab minority. Ahmed Saeed, a reporter for Baghdad Satellite TV, said the decree effectively halts his network's reporting.
"We cannot cover anything now," Saeed said. "Iraqi security forces will immediately arrest us."
The Sunni outlets are based outside Iraq, in Jordan, Dubai or Egypt. Most have been sharply critical of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government since fighting last week between government troops and Sunni tribes in northern Iraq left more than 100 dead.
The communications commission accused the networks of airing "misleading and exaggerated" coverage of the fighting in the city of Hawija, near Kirkuk, where dozens of demonstrators died in clashes with Iraqi police. The shuttered stations ran inflated death tolls and "carried a clear message by encouraging criminal activities and attacking security forces," it said.
The list includes one Shiite network, Al-Anwar. Some outlets, such as Al Jazeera, have been ordered to shut down operations in Iraq before; the network had no immediate response to the latest order.
Watchdog groups previously have accused al-Maliki's government of using the communications commission to stifle criticism from Sunni outlets in particular.
Sunnis dominated Iraq during under the rule of longtime strongman Saddam Hussein but became a disaffected minority after his overthrow in 2003. Their discontent contributed to years of bloody insurgent and sectarian violence in the country, where the Shiite majority now holds sway.
Since December, tens of thousands of Sunni demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest what they call second-class treatment by the government.
Amid last week's fighting in several northern provinces, al-Maliki called for dialogue among tribal leaders, government officials and security forces to stop the conflict from spiraling out of control and keep the country's nascent democracy from unraveling.
But bombings at Sunni mosques and at a restaurant in a Shiite district of Baghdad left another 14 dead and 80-plus wounded on Friday. Martin Kobler, U.N. special representative in Iraq, warned the country was "at a crossroads."