Human Rights Watch sharply criticised Iraq on Thursday for using “repressive means” to muzzle peaceful protests last week to mark the anniversary of nationwide anti-government rallies.

The New York-based watchdog said activists were threatened with violence and arrest in the build-up to the anniversary protests last month, and said security forces used various means to prevent demonstrators from attending rallies in Baghdad.

“Security forces are using repressive means to keep peaceful protesters at bay,” HRW's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement.

“While the level of violence may be lower than it was a year ago, the effect is the same - preventing Iraqis from engaging in peaceful dissent.”

In Baghdad, HRW reported several roads leading to the main protest site at Tahrir Square in the city centre were closed off. It said security forces on the route to the square threatened to arrest demonstrators.

And in Sulaimaniyah, the second-biggest city in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, security forces surrounded and filled Sara Square where protesters were gathering, while men in civilian clothes assaulted demonstrators, HRW said.

Protests in Baghdad, Sulaimaniyah and other cities in February last year decried widespread corruption, poor basic services and high unemployment.

On February 25, 2011, 16 people died and more than 130 were wounded in clashes between police and demonstrators.

Two days later, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gave his cabinet 100 days to improve the delivery of services or face “changes,” but no one was ever fired.

Last month, HRW said Iraq was falling back into authoritarianism and headed towards becoming a police state. - AFP