BAGHDAD -- U.S. and Iraqi soldiers found 24 severely malnourished children in a Baghdad orphanage -- some tied to their beds and too weak to stand, the U.S. military said Wednesday.
Photographs showed emaciated children lying on the floor, some of them tied to cribs, of a U.S. soldier holding a bottle of water for one of the boys to drink and of American medics examining the children.
But an Iraqi Cabinet minister whose department is investigating the case criticized publicity surrounding the boys and said news reports were inaccurate.
"We totally reject the tricks they used to manipulate and distort facts and show the Americans as the humanitarian party. That could not be further from the truth," said Labor and Social Affairs Minister Mahmoud Mohammed al-Radhi.
The minister said the institution in which the boys were housed had saved them from a certain death on the streets of Baghdad. All the boys, he said, were severely handicapped and abandoned by their families. He accused the Americans of staging a photograph of the children.
The story of the orphanage was first reported this week by CBS News, which broadcast pictures of the boys.
The U.S. military said the boys were between the ages of 3 and 15. It said many of the youngsters were found naked in a dark room with no windows. Supplies of food and clothing were found in a nearby storeroom.
Three women, who claimed to be caretakers, and two men, the orphanage director and a guard, were in the building when the soldiers arrived June 10, according to the military statement.
Adel Muhsin, the Iraqi Health Ministry's inspector general, said arrest warrants were issued for three employees of the orphanage who have gone into hiding. He did not identify the three or say what jobs they held at the facility.
A probe into the case ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was under way in tandem with a separate one by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Muhsin told The Associated Press.
"I was shocked to see the images," Mushin said. "We never expected that the people entrusted to take care of them would be so mean."
Al-Radhi, the Cabinet minister, issued his comments to the independent Sharqiya television station, which is often critical of the government. Both Sharqiya and the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat published pictures of the children.
The military said U.S. medics were called in to treat the children and that Iraqi soldiers notified local council members, who came to help the boys. Ten additional workers have been hired to work with the children who were transferred to another facility.
"We're very grateful that this story unfolded the way that it did, that none of these 24 boys lost their lives," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, Multi-National Division-Baghdad deputy commanding general, said.
"This is a story of partnership, courageous action and compassion overcoming deplorable negligence," Brooks said.
The U.S. soldiers were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C., said division spokesman Maj. Tom Earnhardt. The soldiers were working under the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division in Baghdad, he said.
But al-Rahdi accused the American soldiers of setting up one of the images on Sharqiya that shows at least four of the boys cluttered in a small bed. The probe ordered by his ministry, he said, should question the U.S. soldiers involved.
"They are our children not the Americans'," al-Radhi told state Iraqiya television late Wednesday. "It's a media fabrication exploited by forces opposed to the government."
Iraqi children are thought to have suffered most in the violence that has torn Iraq for more than four years.
The U.N. Children's Fund said last month that Iraq's children are caught in a rapidly worsening tragedy and that half the estimated 4 million Iraqis who have fled their homes since the war began in 2003 are children.
"Violence is creating widows and orphans on a daily basis, many of whom are left to struggle for survival," it said. "Iraq's children, already casualties of a quarter of a century of conflict and deprivation, are being caught up in a rapidly worsening humanitarian tragedy."
Despite the violence, a recent immunization vaccinated 3.6 million children against measles, mumps and rubella, UNICEF said. More such efforts are needed, it added.
Associated Press reporter Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.