BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi authorities suspended the operating licenses of pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine Iraqi TV channels on Sunday after accusing them of escalating sectarian tension. The move signaled the Shiite-led government's mounting worries over deteriorating security amid Sunni unrest and clashes that have left more than 180 people dead in less than a week.
The suspensions, which took effect immediately, appeared to target mainly Sunni channels known for criticizing Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik's government. Apart from Al-Jazeera, the decision affected eight Sunni and one Shiite channels.
The government's action comes as Baghdad tries to quell rising unrest in the country that erupted last week after Iraqi security forces launched a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest site in the central city of Hawija, killing 23 people, including three soldiers.
Since then, more than 180 people have been killed in gunbattles with security forces and other attacks. The recent wave of violence follows more than four months of largely peaceful protests by Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
Iraqi viewers will still be able to watch the channels, but the suspensions issued by Iraq's Communications and Media Commission state that if the 10 stations try to work on Iraqi territory they will face legal action from security forces. The decree essentially prevents news crews from the stations from reporting on activities in Iraq.
Sunni lawmaker Dahfir al-Ani described the move as part of the government's attempts "to cover up the bloodshed that took place in Hawija and what is going on in other places in the country."
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."
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. The nation is a leading backer of the rebels and is accused by many supporters of the Iraqi government of backing protests in Iraq too.
Newspapers and media outlets sprang up across Baghdad after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, yet Iraq remains one of the deadliest countries for reporters with more than 150 killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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 the Iraqi 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.
The Baghdad-based Baghdad TV said the decision was politically motivated.
"The Iraqi authorities do not tolerate any opposite opinions and are trying to silence any voices that do not go along with the official line," said Omar Subhi, who directs the news section.
He added that the TV station was concerned about the safety of its staff, fearing that security forces might chase them.
In a statement posted on its website, the government media commission blamed the banned stations for the escalation of sectarian tension that is fueling the violence that followed the deadly clashes in Hawija.
Iraq's media commission accused the stations of misleading and exaggerated reports, airing "clear calls for disorder" and "launching retaliatory criminal attacks against security forces." It also blamed the stations for promoting "banned terrorist organizations who committed crimes against Iraqi people."
Osama Abdul-Rahman, a Sunni government employee from northern Baghdad, said the government is adopting a double-standard policy regarding media outlets by turning a blind eye on several Shiite channels that he claims also incite violence.
"The channels close to main Shiite parties and even the state-run television also broadcast sectarian programs promoting violence all the time, yet, nobody stops them," he added.
Erin Evers, a Mideast researcher for Human Rights Watch, called the government's claim that it moved against the channels because they were inciting sectarianism suspicious given its "consistent history of cracking down on media — particularly opposition media — during politically sensitive times."
"The cancellation of these stations' licenses is further evidence that the government seeks to prevent the coverage of news they do not like," she said.
She accused the Iraqi media commission of confusing coverage of a speech with sectarian overtones with the active promotion of sectarian violence. "These are two completely different things and the first is protected under international and Iraqi law," she said.
The decision to suspend the stations came as al-Maliki made a rare appearance at an official funeral for five soldiers killed on Saturday by gunmen in Sunni-dominated Anbar province. Local police in the province said the soldiers were killed in a gunbattle after their vehicle was stopped near a Sunni protest camp.
Authorities had given 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.
In Saturday violence, gunmen using guns fitted with silencers shot dead two Sunni local tribal leaders in two separate drive-by shootings south of Baghdad.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed.