Almost eight years after US-led forces invaded Iraq, the country's transition to a functioning and sustainable democracy built on rule of law is far from accomplished.
And knowledgeable observers are divided about whether the country is a work in progress full of growing pains, a case of wishful thinking -- or a propaganda vehicle.
According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, "the rights of Iraq's most vulnerable citizens, especially women and detainees, are violated with impunity, and those who would expose official malfeasance or abuses by armed groups do so at enormous risk."
"Iraq's future as a society based on respect for fundamental human rights depends in large part on whether Iraqi authorities will adequately defend those rights and establish a credible national criminal justice system embodying international standards with respect to torture, free expression, and violence against women and other vulnerable sectors of society," the report says.
Bikya Masr, an independent Iraqi website, has reported on the latest outrage committed by Iraqis against other Iraqis. At about 2 a.m. on February 23, 2011, more than 20 armed men, some of them wearing brown military uniforms and red berets, and others wearing black military uniforms with skull-and-cross-bones insignia on their helmets, pulled up in Humvees outside the group's office in Baghdad and broke in, a witness told Human Rights Watch.
The security forces conducted a destructive search of the office that lasted more than an hour and seized the organization's computers, external hard drives, cameras, cell phones, CDs, documents, and several flak jackets and helmets marked "Press," the witness said.
"This raid on the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory shows the contempt of Iraqi authorities for groups that challenge the state's human rights record," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
A spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the men were part of the Iraqi army but gave few other details.
Ziyad al-Ajili, the group's executive director, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities "were obviously sending us a message to stop our work of supporting journalists". This kind of governmental intimidation is precisely what we try to shed light on." In Iraqi television interviews over the days leading up to the raid, al-Ajili voiced support for the right of Iraqis to protest peacefully and the media's right to report on the protests.
Human Rights Watch visited the group's office the morning after the raid and saw extensive damage, including broken furniture, destroyed equipment, kicked-in doors, and ripped-up posters and literature for the organization's events, such as their annual "Press Courage Awards." Framed photographs of journalists killed in Iraq since 2003 were strewn on the floor, covered in broken glass.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that authorities would not return the computer hard drives and other electronic data storage devices seized from the group.
Al-Ajili said he fears that the authorities used the raid as a pretext to close the office, which serves as an informal gathering point for local journalists. In late January, the group held an awards ceremony in Baghdad, honoring
investigative journalists who had uncovered corruption and other wrongdoing.
Although improvements in security since 2008 have reduced the assaults against media workers, journalists and press freedom advocates remain at risk in Iraq.
In the months following the 2003 invasion, Iraq experienced a media boom as hundreds of new publications and television and radio channels sprung up across the country, and Iraqis gained access to satellite dishes and the Internet.
But media freedom was short-lived with the introduction of restrictive legislative and other barriers and an upsurge in violence that made Iraq one of the most the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist.