Leading Sunni politicians in Iraq have demanded an international inquiry following the discovery that 173 people had been tortured and held captive in an interior ministry bunker.
They claim such abuse was regularly carried out by paramilitaries connected to the government and accuse US forces of giving it "the green light".
The call for an independent inquiry was backed by the United Nations' special investigator on torture. But the Badr Organisation, a Shia militia suspected of responsibility for the mistreatment of the mainly Sunni prisoners, has denied any involvement.
The organisation also said that a raid by American forces on the underground complex in central Baghdad which led to the prisoners being found was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and an attempt to gain favour with Sunnis ahead of the national elections.
The discovery of the prisoners, most of them starving, some allegedly flayed, is an embarrassment to the US administration, which has pledged to end abuse by the Iraqi government. Manfred Nowak, the UN special investigator on torture, backed the call for an independent investigation. He said: "What we hear is shocking, but we have received allegations of these secret places in Iraq for quite a long time. It only means that there is a need for an impartial and independent investigation."
A guard at the complex in Jadriyahdescribed how prisoners were brought there after being arrested. "We placed sacks over their heads and tied their hands behind their backs," said Seif Saad, an 18-year-old former labourer who has never received police training. "They were brought here for interrogations over bombings. Some were released, some were sent to prisons. They were brought here if they were suspected of terrorism, it didn't matter whether they were Sunnis, Shias or Kurds."
Hussein Kamal, the Deputy Interior Minister, who visited the bunker, said: "I never thought I would witness scenes like these. I saw signs of physical abuse by brutal beatings, one or two detainees were paralysed and some had the skin peeled off parts of their bodies." He also revealed that "instruments of torture" were found in the building.
Omar Hujail, a member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, maintained that an investigation ordered by Iraq's Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, would be a whitewash. "This is not the only place where torture takes place," he said. "We have been telling them for ages that there are people wearing the uniforms of the interior ministry raiding houses and arresting people at night, but everybody denies it.
"We urge the United Nations and human rights organisations to denounce these violations and we call on them to conduct a fair international investigation."
The Badr Organisation, formerly the Badr Brigade, is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an influential voice in the Iraqi government which counts the Interior Minister, Bayan Jabor, as one its members. The Badr Brigade was formed in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein was in power and its members are said to have taken over large sections of the police force in Basra in the British-controlled south.
Haid al-Amery, the head of the Badr Organisation, said: "This bunker is run by the interior ministry, the Americans are here every day. Badr has nothing to do with this, why should Badr be involved in the first place? The Americans have violated Iraqi sovereignty by raiding the place the way they did. They have done exactly the same as the British did when they raided a place in Basra and freed spies who were harming the Iraqi people."
Hundreds of bodies, often with signs of torture, have been discovered in Iraq, thought to be the victims of "death squads" of paramilitaries associated with the government. Earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch report accused theIraqi security forces of widespread abuse.Reuse content