In an incident that is likely to further aggravate sectarian tensions in Iraq, the country's Shi'ite-led government officials acknowledged Tuesday that nearly 170 mostly Sunni detainees discovered by American troops Sunday inside a Baghdad facility run by the interior ministry have been tortured and abused.  

Iraq's Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal says he was stunned by the discovery of the prisoners, living in filthy, cramped conditions and in poor health inside an interior ministry building in the Jadriyah district of Baghdad.

Mr. Kamal says all of the detainees had been treated very badly and some showed clear signs of having been brutally beaten, starved and tortured.

The prisoners were discovered Sunday by American troops, who went to the facility to search for a missing 15 year-old boy, who had been seen inside the prison.  The U.S. military says the troops had permission to search the facility, nicknamed "the bunker" because it served as a nuclear bomb shelter during Saddam Hussein's regime.

Officials at the facility initially told the soldiers that there were holding only 40 prisoners. But behind one locked room, the Americans found 165 blindfolded men, most in dire need of medical help.  In another windowless room, no bigger than a small bedroom closet, the soldiers found three more men who said they had been locked up in there for at least four months.

VOA was at the facility late Monday when U.S. soldiers transferred the prisoners to another holding facility, to be given medical care while legal teams reviewed their cases.   At least a dozen of the prisoners appeared to be severely emaciated and had trouble walking.  Others had deep bruises and cuts on their faces, arms, and legs.

Of the 168 prisoners, all but three men were Sunni Arabs, who the interior ministry says were arrested for carrying out terrorist activities and supporting the insurgency. 

But Iraq's interior ministry is largely controlled by Shi'ite officials with strong links to the Badr Brigade.  The Badr Brigade is a feared Shi'ite militia, whose members received training in Iran to fight against Saddam's Sunni-led regime and to serve as the armed wing to the country's largest Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The interior ministry's ties with the Badr organization has long prompted outrage and complaints from Sunnis that the ministry's security forces were detaining, torturing and killing Sunni Arabs purely for sectarian reasons.

Falah al-Naqib is a Sunni parliament member and former interior minister under the previous interim administration of Iyad Allawi.  He says he believes the detention center in Baghdad was a secret prison run by the Badr Brigade, which has infiltrated deep into the interior ministry.  

"If you ask anybody in the streets of Baghdad, they would tell you that many people have been brought to this facility," Mr. al-Naqib said. " They have been tortured.  They have been killed.  Exactly who is running this?  I know there is somebody called Engineer Ahmed, which is the guy who runs this facility and is the deputy assistant for intelligence.  I believe he is a Badr person."

Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari says he has formed a committee to look into the allegations of prisoner abuse and torture.  The United States says it is providing technical assistance, including support from U.S. law enforcement agencies, in the investigation.