The 26-year-old Sunni Arab man sat in the restaurant of a fashionable Baghdad hotel, his business suit covering marks where he said a power drill had penetrated his thigh and acid dissolved his calf.
The former Iraqi SWAT commander had traveled to Baghdad for meetings with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and other high-ranking officials in which he plans to provide an account of torture he says he endured on the orders of Maj. Gen. Ghanim Quraishi, the Shiite Muslim police chief of Diyala province.
In an interview, Hisham Mahdi Salih said he was abused as part of the police chief’s sectarian campaign against Sunni officers. And though American military officers have questioned portions of his story, the captain’s account has become a rallying point for Sunni protests that erupted in the last week in one of Iraq’s most turbulent regions.
The challenge, involving more than 10,000 protesters, threatens to unravel the U.S.-funded citizens security group in Diyala, a largely Sunni force. In recent days large numbers of the group’s members have refused to patrol or operate checkpoints unless Quraishi is ousted.
American military officials have said that without the nearly 3,000 volunteer fighters in Diyala -- many of them former insurgents who joined the American side during the last eight months -- security will not improve in the region, a crossroads between Baghdad, Iran and insurgent strongholds to the north.
Quraishi, who has been accused by U.S. commanders of refusing to integrate Sunnis into his force, declined to comment. An aide said an order had been issued to all members of the department not to speak to reporters.
Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, who oversees the training of Iraqi police, said a large-scale investigation had been launched on all the allegations against Quraishi and preliminary findings would be released next week.
“The allegations are serious, but on the other hand [Quraishi] was the only person who stepped up to the job,” Phillips said.
In the interview, Salih tearfully but forcefully recounted his allegations of Quraishi’s abuse. “This is my opportunity to have my voice heard,” he said.
Despite the restaurant’s formal setting, he rose at one point without hesitation to drop his pants to display the scars he said were caused by acid and a power drill.
An Army spokeswoman, Maj. Margaret Kageleiry, said the military had thoroughly investigated Salih’s allegation of torture by Iraqi police and concluded that his injuries were consistent with torture, but it was unable to determine whether Iraqi police were at fault.
Salih, in the interview, provided documentation, later confirmed by the U.S. military, that he had been trained at an American military base to lead a SWAT team in Muqdadiya, a city 60 miles northeast of Baghdad.
In January 2006, he said, his team was part of a joint mission with a U.S. Army special forces unit in nearby Balad Ruz. The targets were hiding in a Shiite mosque. Unable to enter, the Americans surrounded the building and sent the Iraqi team inside.
Salih said his team arrested members of Iran’s Quds Force, accused by U.S. military officials of supporting Shiite militias in Iraq, most notably by supplying them with armor-piercing bombs known as explosively formed penetrators.
“Of course, I knew the risk in raiding a Shiite mosque, but it was with the Americans and I had no choice,” Salih said.
Twenty-one days later, he said, an Iraqi arrest warrant was issued against him.
Salih said he went into hiding for a year and a half, until a supervisor called in July to say that he could come to a police office to collect his salary. Desperate for the money, and trusting the supervisor, he went.
Shortly after the supervisor served him tea, Salih said, 30 men wearing black clothing and ski masks entered the room.
“They handcuffed me and covered my eyes,” he said. “They hit me all over my body until I lost consciousness.”
Ten hours later, Quraishi arrived, he said. Salih said the tall, thin chief told him, “You deserve even worse. Why did you authorize the raid?”
Over subsequent days, he said, he was hung from the ceiling, his toenails were ripped off with pliers, a knife was used to cut his scalp and dig into his skull. He said he was tied to a pole, and was repeatedly raped.
When Quraishi reappeared, Salih said, he spat in the chief’s face.
“I wanted him to kill me, but he wouldn’t. I started cursing him, but he still wouldn’t.”
The power drill and acid followed, he said.
He was rescued in August, he said, when American forces descended on the Iraqi police station were he was being held and found him naked and bloodied. They rehabilitated him and found him a job hundreds of miles away at a U.S. base in Anbar province.
Army spokeswoman Kageleiry said she did not know whether Salih was naked when American soldiers found him. She said he was taken into custody from an Iraqi police station and detained because U.S. forces had independently come to believe that Salih had used his position as a SWAT leader to help insurgents launch attacks against American forces.
Military spokesman Maj. Brad Leighton said the identification card showing that Salih worked at an American base in Anbar province was authentic, but he said he did not know whether it was issued recently.
A spokesman for Diyala’s Sunni political bloc, which includes many members of the concerned citizens group, which was known as the Awakening Council but recently renamed the Sons of Iraq, said the protests would continue unabated until Quraishi is removed.
“If the people cannot remove a corrupt police chief, what good is the democracy that the Americans brought?” said the spokesman, who asked to be identified by only his first name, Rasim.
“If the chief stays in office, our support for the Americans will only deteriorate.”
Times staff writer Tina Susman and a special correspondent in Diyala contributed to this report.