Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari held a hurriedly organized news conference to announce the official inquiry. He also said there would be a second investigation, including 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. He said the detainees had been moved to another location and had been given all necessary medical care.
A joint statement by the American Embassy and the United States military command called the situation "totally unacceptable" and said American 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 American 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 government.
Ominously, amid rising sectarianism here, Interior Ministry officials reported that the abused detainees appeared to have been mostly Sunni Arabs, and their abusers Shiite police officers loyal to the notorious Badr Organization, a militia with close links to Iran.
For American 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.
American efforts are currently centered on national elections scheduled for Dec. 15 for a full, four-year government. What American troops found in the government building appeared laden with potential for aggravating Sunni-Shiite tensions just when American officials have been working hard to draw wavering Sunni groups into the political process.
The detention center was discovered by chance late on Sunday evening, when troops of the Third 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 Jadriya, a densely populated suburb less than a mile south across the Tigris River from the Green Zone compound that is the seat of American and Iraqi power.
Only a half-mile further south is the headquarters of the Shiite religious party that is the parent of the Badr group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as Sciri, which has wide influence in Jadriya.
American officers said the guards had told them that only 40 men were held in the building.
At his news conference, Mr. 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 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," Mr. Jaafari said. The wider investigation, into jail conditions across the country, will 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 ministry's under secretary 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.
The dismay among American officers involved in the operations on Sunday was evident from a report on Tuesday in The Los Angeles Times, which on Monday carried the first report of the raid in Jadriya. In its report on Tuesday, the newspaper quoted Brig. Gen. Karl Horst of the Third Infantry Division, the commander of the raid, as saying that there would be more operations directed at uncovering secret detention centers. "We're going to hit every single one of them," he said.
Since the Jaafari government took office in May and gave the post of interior minister to Bayan Jabr, a former leader of the Badr militia, it has been dogged by allegations that Shiite religious militiamen have infiltrated the country's 110,000-member police force and acted as a spearhead of revenge against Sunnis, locking up thousands in secret detention centers, and forming police death squads that single out Sunnis.
Mr. Jabr has denied the allegations, describing them as Sunni insurgent propaganda intended to discredit the country's first Shiite-majority government. He has also pointed to the widespread sectarian killings carried out by Sunni insurgents, who have attacked thousands of Shiites in mosques and bazaars and have carried out group killings of kidnapped Shiites, including police officers.
Mr. Jaafari acted after meetings with the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and with the American military commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., according to accounts by American officials.
The disclosure of the direct American role in hastening Mr. Jaafari into action was a break from the usual pattern in the 17 months since Iraq regained formal sovereignty, a period in which American officials have been assiduous in exerting their influence behind the scenes. Coupled with the uncompromising tone of the American statement, it left little doubt that the Americans saw the episode as one with dire implications for the American enterprise here.
"The alleged mistreatment of detainees and the inhumane conditions at an Iraqi Ministry of Interior detention facility is very serious, and totally unacceptable," the American statement said.
Prisoners Allege Use of Lions
The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 - Army officials said Tuesday that they were looking into claims by two former Iraqi detainees that they had been put into cages holding lions to terrify them during interrogations in 2003.
Thahe Mohammed Sabar said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union that soldiers had pushed him and Sherzad Khalid, a friend, into the cage, then pulled them out when a lion moved toward him. Mr. Khalid said soldiers had forced him into the cages after repeatedly asking where to find Saddam Hussein and unconventional weapons.
Asked about the allegations during a news conference on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, "It seems quite far-fetched," adding, "Obviously, everything that everyone alleges is looked into."
The two are among eight plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in March by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First against Mr. Rumsfeld, alleging they were subjected to sexual abuse, mock executions and other torture.