BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq's government said Tuesday that it had ordered an urgent investigation of allegations that 173 detainees U.S. troops discovered in the basement of an Interior Ministry building had been tortured by their Iraqi captors. A senior Iraqi official who visited the detainees said two appeared paralyzed and others had their skin peeled off by their abusers.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari held a hurriedly organized news conference to announce the official inquiry. He said a wider one would involve a comprehensive count of the thousands held in Iraqi jails to determine whether there was a wider pattern of abuse, as many opponents of his government have claimed.
A joint statement by the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. military command called the situation "totally unacceptable" and said U.S. officials "agree with Iraq's leaders that mistreatment of detainees will not be tolerated."
The discovery of what appeared to have been a secret torture center created a new aura of crisis for U.S. officials and Iraqi politicians who hold power in the Shiite-led transitional government. For many Iraqis, the episode carried heavy overtones of the brutality associated with Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime.
Ominously, amid rising sectarianism here, the abused detainees appeared to have been almost all Sunni Arabs, and their abusers Shiite police officers loyal to the notorious Badr Organization, a militia with close links to Iran.
For U.S. officials in Iraq, still laboring under the shadow of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and other allegations of mistreatment of prisoners, the new allegations came at a particularly inopportune moment.
U.S. efforts are centered on national elections scheduled for Dec. 15 for a full, four-year government, and the details of what U.S. troops found in the government building appeared laden with potential for aggravating sectarian tensions that have bedeviled efforts to foster political stability here.
The detention center was discovered by chance late on Sunday evening, when troops of the 3rd Infantry Division, investigating a mother's complaint about a missing 15-year-old boy, led Iraqi soldiers in forcing their way past Interior Ministry guards at the building in Jadriyah, a densely-populated suburb less than a mile south across the Tigris River from the Green Zone compound that is the seat of U.S. and Iraqi power
U.S. officers said the guards had told them there were only 40 men held in the building, but that nearly four times that number were found locked up inside.
At his news conference, Jaafari said the troops who stormed the building found "signs of malnourishment" among the 173 men and teenage boys, and "there was some talk that they had been tortured."
He said he had appointed a deputy prime minister, Rowsh Nouri Shaways, who is Kurdish, to head an inquiry, and ordered him to report within two weeks. "We want to know how this was allowed to happen, and how things reached this point," he said.
The wider investigation, into jail conditions across the country, would be led by "ministers and other figures," he said.
An Interior Ministry statement said flatly that torture had occurred and that "instruments of torture," which it did not describe, were found in the building.
The Interior Ministry's undersecretary for security, Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, was similarly blunt. "They were being abused," he told Reuters. "This is totally unacceptable treatment and it is denounced by the minister and everyone in Iraq."
In a CNN interview, he was more graphic. "I saw signs of physical abuse by brutal beating, one or two detainees were paralyzed and some had skin peeling off various parts of their bodies," he said. "I've never seen a situation like this during the past two years in Baghdad. This is the worst."
Contributing: Omar Al-Neami