In at least six separate incidents since June, Iraqi reporters said they had been physically beaten, had their equipment confiscated and been falsely accused of "terrorism".

Senior US and Iraqi military officials admit such attacks have occurred and a series of investigations are underway.

Saman Fakhri of the Iranian-owned Al-Alam satellite television station said the assaults were intended to stop journalists reporting properly on rising levels of violence in Kirkuk.

"Things are getting worse and in response the security forces are directing an increasing amount of their energy and anger against the press," he told Aljazeera.net.

"We're under attack from all sides: the Iraqi Police, the Iraqi Army, the Emergency Services, Coalition Forces and the political parties are subjecting us to physical and verbal abuse.”

Kirkuk attacks surge

Kirkuk is becoming increasingly violent

American and Iraqi authorities in Kirkuk are keen to present the city as peaceful and united, in contrast to its reputation as a battleground between separatist Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs.

But since the killing of al-Qaeda- in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Kirkuk has seen a surge in car bombings that have left scores - mainly civilians - dead.

Reporters say they have been prevented from taking photos at the scene of these attacks.

Fakhri is one of 50 journalists in the city who have signed a letter, sent to the authorities, calling for the harassment of reporters to end.

"We demand that the security forces allow us to do our work and there should be no repeat of violence; press credentials must be respected," he said. "A free press is essential for Iraq.

"We want a commitment that officials and security forces will abide by the law of this country and that any violators will be held accountable."

US Army sees "a few" assaults

Colonel David Gray defends the US army's actions in Kirkuk

Colonel David Gray, commander of the 101st Airborne brigade stationed in Kirkuk, said he was aware of "a few" assaults on journalists and expected compensation would be paid to at least one Associated Press reporter who had cameras deliberately smashed by American forces at the scene of a bombing.

He insisted his troops respected press freedom and that there was no policy of interference. However Colonel Gray he said insurgents were trying to manipulate the media.

"A free and open press is a fundamental principle of democracy, but there needs to be a balance," he said.

"We have to be honest that the enemy we are fighting is very skilful at using propaganda so there is a concern among police and soldiers that there may be people filming who are not accredited journalists, but in fact bad guys trying to get propaganda material."

His remarks came in an emergency meeting of journalists on July 23. Reporters had wanted to film the proceedings and make the situation public but US officials refused.

Anti-democratic

Joel Campagna, spokesman for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) accused the US and Iraqi security forces of acting anti-democratically.

"We've received a disturbing number of complaints from Iraqi journalists describing harassment: threats, intimidation, obstruction and the confiscation of their equipment at the hands of US and Iraqi forces," he told Aljazeera.net.

Journalist Saman Fakhri says US  and Iraqi troops attack reporters

"This heavy handed treatment of journalists undermines the stated commitments of the US and Iraqi officials in support of a free press. It reflects the kind of behaviour associated with autocratic regimes in the region, not an aspiring democracy."

According to figures compiled by the CPJ, 74 reporters and 27 media workers have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003, making it the deadliest place in the world for journalists.

Campagna said: "The bulk of those killed have been local Iraqis and the vast majority have been killed at the hands of insurgent groups.

"But US troops and Iraqi security forces represent another source of danger. US forces' fire is the second leading cause of journalist fatalities in Iraq."

Last year US military authorities in Iraq detained seven journalists, accusing them of complicity in terrorism.

All were subsequently released - in some cases after more than 100 days in prison - because of lack of evidence.