updated 11/15/2005 12:02:50 AM ET 2005-11-15T05:02:50

Two Iraqi businessmen, who were imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq, claimed Monday that American soldiers threw them into a cage of lions in a Baghdad palace, as part of a terrifying interrogation in 2003.

“They took me behind the cage, they were screaming at me, scaring me and beating me a lot,” Thahe Mohammed Sabbar said in an interview. “One of the soldiers would open the door, and two soldiers would push me in. The lions came running toward me and they pulled me out and shut the door. I completely lost consciousness.”

Army spokesman Paul Boyce said he has never heard of lions being used in any detainee operations and it has never come up in any of the more than 400 investigations into prisoner abuse conducted by the military over the past three years.

“We take every allegation of detainee abuse seriously,” Boyce said. “But it does seem unusual that this is now coming out for the very first time after three years of investigations.”

Sabbar, 37, and Sherzad Kamal Khalid, 35, are in the United States this week to talk about the lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First filed on their behalf against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other military officials.

The suit, which was filed in March and transferred to U.S. District Court in Washington, details alleged sexual abuse, mock executions, water and food deprivation, electric shock and other torture used on eight prisoners, including Sabbar and Khalid. It does not mention the lion cage.

The two men described the July day in 2003 when they were arrested by American troops with guns and armored vehicles. They said they were covered with plastic hoods and repeatedly struck by soldiers using the butt of their guns.

‘I thought they were kidding’
They both described standing in front of a lion cage, and said they could hear other prisoners screaming as the metal cage door creaked open and slammed shut.

“They threatened that if I did not confess they would put me in the cage,” said Khalid, adding that the soldiers kept asking him where Saddam was. “I laughed, I thought they were kidding me. They asked, ‘where are the weapons of mass destruction?’ I was very surprised and I thought it was weird.”

But when he laughed, he said, he was only beaten more. And he said they pushed him into the cage three times, pulling him out as the lions moved toward him.

ACLU lead counsel Lucas Guttentag said the lion cage was not mentioned in the initial legal filing because lawyers considered that part of the charges of mock executions, which would later be detailed. He said media reports in summer 2003 documented that American soldiers had access to the lions.

Other reports suggested that the lions were being sent to zoos, although it is unclear when they were moved.

Ulcers, nightmares
Both men said they suffer continuing physical and psychological trauma, such as pain, ulcers, nightmares and insomnia.

Sabbar said he was held by U.S. forces for about six months, while Khalid was held for about two months.

Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Odai, kept lions in his compound at the presidential palace, which was taken over by U.S. troops during the war. He was killed in a gunbattle with American soldiers in July 2003.

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