Human rights abuses in Iraq are as bad now as they were under Saddam Hussein, as lawlessness and sectarian violence sweep the country, the former U.N. human rights chief in Iraq said Thursday.

John Pace, who last month left his post as director of the human rights office at the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, said the level of extra-judicial executions and torture is soaring, and morgue workers are being threatened by both government-backed militia and insurgents not to properly investigate deaths.

"Under Saddam, if you agreed to forgo your basic right to freedom of expression and thought, you were physically more or less OK," Pace said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But now, no. Here, you have a primitive, chaotic situation where anybody can do anything they want to anyone."

Pace, who was born in Malta but now resides in Australia, said that while the scale of atrocity under Saddam was "daunting," now nobody is safe from abuse.

"It is certainly as bad," he said. "It extends over a much wider section of the population than it did under Saddam."

Pace, currently a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, spoke as sectarian tensions in Iraq push the country to the brink of civil war.

There has been a surge in religious violence in Iraq since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the mainly Sunni city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, and a spate of reprisal attacks against Sunnis.

The situation has been made worse by extremist Shiite militia operating within the ranks of the Interior Ministry, said Pace, who singled out the Badr Brigade, which makes up a large chunk of the Iraqi security services and military.

He said militia and insurgents are responsible for threatening morgue staff in Baghdad not to perform autopsies on bodies of apparent victims of torture and killings.

"They are told it is not necessary, and not in their interests," he said, adding that both militia and insurgents were "trying to minimize any chances" that their activities could be investigated and prosecuted.

Pace, who spent much of his two years in the post in Iraq, said he visited the morgue in Baghdad once a week when he was in the city and regarded it as a "barometer" of the level of violence in the country. He declined to provide more specific details about the threats, citing fears for the safety of morgue workers.

He said that around three-quarters of the several hundred bodies brought to the morgue each month were categorized with "gunshot wound" as the cause of death — a phrase Pace says is a euphemism. "Nearly all were executed and tortured," he added.

Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, is a member of Iraq's biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which ran the Badr Brigade. Badr claims it is no longer an armed militia.

But former Badr commanders hold key posts in Interior Ministry commando units, which are regarded by Sunnis as nothing more than death squads. In November, the U.S. Army raided an Interior Ministry bunker in Baghdad and found 158 tortured and starved Sunni prisoners.

"They have caused havoc," said Pace, referring to the Badr Brigade. "They do basically as they please. They arrest people, they torture people, they execute people, they detain people, they negotiate ransom and they do that with impunity."