Several Iraqis among a crowd of protesters in Baghdad accused security forces Friday of detaining and beating them for taking part in earlier demonstrations calling for better services and a corruption-free government.
The weeks of protests have shaken Iraqi leaders and put Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the defensive. But unlike unrest elsewhere in the Arab world, the demonstrators taking to the streets after Friday's Muslim prayer services in the past weeks are not aiming to replace their government, focusing instead on demanding better living standards.
A federal police official confirmed some protesters were detained for no more than two days but denied anyone was beaten. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The new accusations came from three protesters gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square _ one of at least four demonstrations Friday morning in major Iraqi cities. The largest rally was in northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, with an estimated turnout of 4,000.
Protester Sami Majid, 23, said he was among crowds during a deadly demonstration in Baghdad on Feb. 25, which was billed as the Iraqi "Day of Rage," when he was detained by police who held him at a military base in the capital's east.
"They beat and kicked me, then forced me to sign a commitment that I would not participate in demonstrations or raise riots," Majid said. He joined about 300 other protesters at Tahrir Square who held the soles of their shoes in the air _ a sign of disrespect in the Middle East _ and shouted, "Liar, liar, Maliki!" in an affront to the prime minister.
Restaurant worker Karar Haidar, 20, said he was held for five days and made to sign the same pledge after being detained for participating in a March 4 rally.
The surge of protests over the last several weeks has provoked a crackdown on demonstrators and journalists, with activists saying they have been detained and beaten by Iraqi security forces.
The government's response to Iraq's unrest, which has fallen far short of the huge crowds elsewhere in the region, has been under scrutiny since 14 people were killed during the Feb. 25 demonstrations and the bodies of three more protesters turned up the day after.
Al-Maliki last week called for an investigation of abuses of protesters but has also condemned demonstrators as supporters of terrorists and former dictator Saddam Hussein.
In the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, riot police and other security forces did not appear to be present near Friday's gathering of about 4,000 people, although the main road leading to the protest at al-Saray Square was blocked off.
"Let the government know that we will keep rallying every day and we will not leave al-Saray until they respond to our demands," said Karzan Khalid, 29. "We have not seen any intention or initiative from the government to carry out reforms."
Smaller protests also were held in the southern port city of Basra and the holy Shiite city of Najaf where hundreds called for more jobs and electricity in their homes.
Friday's rallies came a day after al-Maliki blamed lawmakers for failing to pass badly needed laws that would encourage development and economic growth.
The prime minister singled out important legislation like an oil law needed to streamline investment in the energy sector, a retirement law which he said would encourage older employees to retire and let young people find employment and social insurance legislation that would help poor and elderly Iraqis.
Also Friday, a car bombing wounded 21 people in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where an influx of Kurdish forces is testing simmering ethnic tensions with the city's Arabs. No deaths were immediately reported in the nighttime explosion in a Kurdish-dominated residential area of the oil-rich city, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
Kirkuk is a multiethnic city that is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds. Two weeks ago, thousands of Kurdish security forces moved into Kirkuk in a worrying gambit to bring the city under Kurdish control.
Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.