Exclusive: Iraqi Commander Says, "We Didn't Find a Mosque"

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Iraqis inspect the explosion site after the controversial weekend raid northeast of Baghdad

When is a mosque not a mosque? Under U.S. military rules of engagement it's when it's used to house weapons, hostages and gunmen firing on American-backed Iraqi special forces. So it was in Sunday's explosive raid in a Baghdad quarter controlled by a Shi'ite, anti-American militia. Primed to bust up a vicious kidnapping cell linked to an insurgent group, Iraqi commandos and elite counterterrorism force members, with their U.S. counterparts in a supporting role, swooped on a target building they insist was bristling with armed fighters. By the time they'd left a hostage had been rescued, 16 men were dead, three wounded, and 18 taken prisoner. But what followed took everyone by surprise.

In the 30 minutes it took the soldiers to drive back to their heavily fortified compound their raid was in the spotlight, splashing across television with claims that the 16 men had been butchered as they gathered prayerfully in a mosque. Soon pictures showed bloodied bodies broken and prone over prayer mats, without a weapon in sight (U.S. army photos showed the exact opposite; dead men, weapons draped, not a prayer mat to be seen). Any military success the men of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 1st Iraqi Special Operations Forces Brigade had was quickly swamped by a political and propaganda firestorm.

While Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a line of U.S. generals hit the airwaves to deny the allegations and counter that the images had been staged, no one had heard from the men on the ground who'd stormed the complex, nor from the man the world was being told had been freed. That is until today. In a palace complex deep within a U.S. base, the Iraqi commander who led the raid and the liberated hostage both spoke to TIME, giving their first public accounts of that day's fateful events and largely confirming the U.S. claims.

"We didn't find a mosque," says the Iraqi special forces commander, striking deep at the heart of the allegations against his men. "We only killed men who were armed and firing at us." Though the building has been through several incarnations in past years—from political party branch under Saddam to an office space to what is said to have been a school—local leaders claim it is now a hussaniyah, a Shi'ite mosque,and should have had protected status.

The young officer says his men didn't find prayer mats or books or any of the usual elements of an Islamic house of worship. Instead, he says, they found the instruments of torture: drills, electrical wires, and other "tools." "It is a place used by a political party," he says, having sustained intense, unrelenting fire from houses facing the building on three sides as his men entered. "Other rooms were offices." Based on the evidence his men retrieved—including weapons caches and bomb-making materials—it's clear the site was used by an armed militia, he maintains, with some of its members linked to security forces, and others to a notorious kidnapping ring.

For the still-shaken hostage, a mouse of a man unable to look a Western female television interviewer in the eye nor shake her hand, there was no sense of a holy place. Grabbed at a Baghdad hospital while visiting a brother being treated for gunshot wounds, he said his captors initially told him they were intelligence officers from the Ministry of Interior, a department Western officials privately claim is stacked with Iranian-backed militia forces.

They beat him in the car as they barreled off. When they arrived he was blindfolded and beaten some more, his pockets emptied, and a picture of his young daughter rifled from his wallet. "Who is this?" a captor quizzed. "This is my daughter," he says he replied. "Can I ask you a favor? Can I kiss that picture before you kill me?" The price for his release, he was warned, was $20,000 by morning—or he would never see his daughter again. To drive home the point they lifted his blindfold just enough to let him see bare electrical wires, with a promise that's what awaited him come nightfall. "They said they would take drugs and begin torturing me, that they'd go crazy," he told TIME.

Twelve hours into his ordeal the attack on the hideout began. The man is currently hard of hearing, thanks to a gunman he could never see because of the blindfold who opened fire next to his head with a PKC machine gun. Once the firing close to him stopped he could tell the special forces had breached the perimeter. "I'm the guy kidnapped, I'm the guy kidnapped," he hollered. He was urged to come out, and a soldier put his hand on his shoulder. "We've come to rescue you," he was told.

The freed man, the marks of his bondage still on his wrists, tells the same story as his rescuers. "It's not a prayer place," he says. Well,who controlled it then, was it a militia? "I can't answer because I'm scared. It's not just me, all Iraqis are scared [of the militia]," he timidly replies.

If nothing else this incident, which has seized the public and political focus in Iraq, shows that in a war of perception reality is not always the clincher. Both sides continue to contradict each other, and though a number of investigations have been launched, evincing the truth may no longer matter quite so much as it should. As an American officer conceded, echoing many before over the past three years, in the propaganda game "the enemy information operations machine is very sophisticated, they're constantly beating us to the punch". An American soldier who advised on the scene during the raid pressed the same point. "We could have come out with our side straight away too, but first it has to go up the chain and then come back down," he says. Such a careful, drawn-out process, it seems, may be a luxury the military can ill afford.