The US State Department official responsible for human rights has said that North Korea probably has worse human rights than Iraq - despite justifying its current invasion of Iraq in part by citing human rights violations.
N Korea says the US is not in a position to fault others
The comment came as the State Department released its annual appraisal of human rights conditions in 196 countries around the world.
Several of the 49 members the US says are part of its coalition against Iraq are also cited in the report for rights records that "remain poor" or for serious problems in protecting human rights.
Israel comes in for criticism for its "treatment of Arab citizens" - but only after a preliminary denunciation of the human rights abuses of such "terrorist organisations" as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.
Other nations berated for violations include China, Cuba, Iran, and Zimbabwe.
Iraq 'among the worst'
The Central Asian states are also highlighted for failing to end repression more than a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Some have criticised the US for presuming to judge other countries, and China is set to produce its own assessment of human rights in the US in the next few days.
The report gives no rankings of countries in terms of human rights, but, asked in a BBC interview whether Iraq was the world's worst violator of human rights, State Department official Lorne Craner replied: "No, I would think that honour probably goes to North Korea."
Coalition members criticised in report
However, he said, Iraq was among the two or three bottom-ranking nations, with "brutality that is a daily occurrence... the rape of dissidents, amputation of the tongues of dissidents, just the kind of thing you don't want to think about before you go to sleep at night".
North Korea has responded by branding the US the country with the "poorest human rights record".
On its KCNA state news agency, Pyongyang said "US human rights abuses are clearly evidenced by... its strategy to dominate the world" and said the US was "not in a position to fault other countries over those issues".
US 'not hypocritical'
Mr Craner denied it was hypocritical for the "coalition" of countries supporting the Iraqi invasion to criticise Iraq when they themselves were guilty of human rights abuses.
"When you have a truly awful case... of a country that's not only violated human rights but has weapons of mass destruction and has invaded its neighbours then those who are disgusted by it want to join together to end it," he said.
"It may be that not all of them are perfect, but we also want to work with them to improve their human rights record."
Elements of the State Department report have been viewed with some derision by commentators - in particular its 16-page exposition of human rights in largely trouble-free Canada, and its noting that the Palestinian Authority has failed to install ramps at public building entrances to allow disability access.
Mr Craner's singling out of North Korea as having perhaps the world's worst rights record appeared to be contradicted by Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke on Monday.
Saddam 'worst in history'
"The Iraqi people will be free of decades and decades and decades of torture and oppression the likes of which I think the world has not ever seen before," she told a news conference.
She said Saddam Hussein was the worst ruler in world history.
Aside from comparisons to be made with Saddam Hussein's contemporaries, her comments may infuriate historians who argue his crimes, though heinous, are not comparable with earlier leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.