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Soldiers find 24 severely exhausted children in Baghdad orphanage

U.S. and Iraqi soldiers discovered 24 severely malnourished children in a Baghdad orphanage - some tied to their beds and too weak to stand.

Labor and Social Affairs Minister Mahmoud Mohammed al-Radhi criticized publicity surrounding the boys and said news reports about the case 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," he said.

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.

The U.S. military, which leaked the story and pictures of the orphanage to CBS News earlier this week, said they were all boys 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 Health Ministry's inspector general, said arrest warrants were issued for three employees of the orphanage, but that they have gone into hiding and remain at large.

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 underway 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. It showed still pictures of the 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.

The widely respected pan-Arab daily al-Hayat also published a picture of the children in its Wednesday editions.

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.

"They are our children not the Americans'," al-Radhi told state Iraqiya television late Wednesday. He 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.

"It's a media fabrication exploited by forces opposed to the government," he said.

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.

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