LOS ANGELES, July 22 - After his first four days in solitary confinement at an American military prison in Iraq, Cyrus Kar was taken from his small cell and brought before two F.B.I. agents, who before questioning him gave him a sheet of paper listing his rights.
"I have the right to a lawyer?" Mr. Kar, an aspiring filmmaker from Los Angeles, said he asked as he scanned the list.
"Yes," he said he was told by one of the agents, whom he knew only as Robert.
"Do you actually have lawyers here?" Mr. Kar inquired.
"No," he quoted the agent as explaining. "The last guy who requested one is still waiting two years later, in Afghanistan."
The episode was emblematic, Mr. Kar said, of the 55 days he spent imprisoned in Iraq, struggling to prove his innocence to what he described as an inflexible, often surreal bureaucracy that seemed in no hurry to sort out the guilt or innocence even of a man who carried an American passport and had served in the United States Navy.
"Certainly there were some evil, evil people in there," Mr. Kar, 44, said of Camp Cropper, the prison where he was held, a few cell doors down from one of Saddam Hussein's brothers. "But they are casting a very wide net, and anything that's scooped up in it will be thrown in a cell, and they'll sort it out later."
Mr. Kar, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Iran and came to the United States as a boy, had gone to Iraq to film part of a historical documentary about Cyrus the Great, who united the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C.
After two weeks in Iraq, Mr. Kar and his Iranian cameraman were arrested on May 17 by the Iraqi police, who found two plastic bags filled with washing-machine timers in the trunk of a taxi they had hired to drive them to the Shiite town of Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. American military officials, who said such timers are commonly used by the insurgents to make bombs, held the two men and the taxi driver as "imperative security threats to Iraq."
Mr. Kar and his cameraman, Farshid Faraji, were released July 10; the driver, who officials say proved to be the owner of the timers, remains in custody, a military spokesman said. A senior military spokesman in Iraq said Mr. Kar had been treated fairly and according to "well-established procedures."
"These are serious matters of life and death, and there's a process - which takes some time - to gather all the information," said a Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman. "The military took a very serious and deliberate approach to this case."
Mr. Kar said he was treated well by the military guards, whom he described as honorable young men and women who, for the most part, just wanted to go home. But he spoke angrily of the officers in charge, who he said ignored his repeated requests to see a United States Embassy official and left him in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
In a long interview, his first since returning home this week, Mr. Kar described an ordeal that seemed to mix Orwell or Kafka with flashes of the comical and the absurd.
Mr. Kar, a wiry former Silicon Valley sales executive who speaks in passionate bursts about film, politics and other subjects that fascinate him, said he had known the risks of going to Iraq. But after traveling for the project to Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Iran, he was determined to film at Babylon, the ancient city that was central to the story of Cyrus the Great.
A few days after receiving their Iraqi visas on April 30, Mr. Kar and the cameraman left Tehran and traveled into Iraq. They filmed in northern Iraq for about 10 days, then drove to Baghdad on May 13 with a Kurdish guide.
Mr. Kar said they were stopped and questioned by the Iraqi security forces almost daily, but were always sent on their way after showing their passports and visas. He said his Iranian passport and Iranian cameraman were liabilities with some Iraqi policemen and soldiers still bitter about the Iran-Iraq war. Still, Mr. Kar said, he was more concerned that insurgents might find his American passport and Veterans Affairs identity card.
On May 16, Mr. Kar and Mr. Faraji were detained by Iraqi policemen at another checkpoint near Balad and held for several tense hours. With money short, Mr. Kar sent the shaken guide home the next day. He and Mr. Faraji still wanted to film near Balad and in Babylon, but they felt comfortable enough to get along on their own, even though neither spoke Arabic.
"It was not as dangerous as I thought it would be," Mr. Kar said of Iraq. "The place was crawling with journalists and foreigners. But they had more money, and they could afford the security."
That morning, the two filmmakers went to find a driver for a quick return trip to Balad. They did not like the looks of the driver they found, Mr. Kar said, but the man agreed to charge a bit less than they had paid the day before. Once more, they were stopped at a checkpoint near Balad. "Everything was fine," Mr. Kar said. "Then they popped the trunk."
Within little more than an hour after the filmmakers were driven to a police substation, Mr. Kar said, the Iraqi police officials appeared to have determined that the 35 timers belonged to the driver, not his passengers. When two American soldiers walked into the police station, Mr. Kar recalled thinking: "Yay! The cavalry's here."
Instead, the three men were handcuffed, blindfolded and led away to an adjacent American operating base without even a question, he said. About 2 a.m., Mr. Kar said, he was finally brought in for an interrogation by two soldiers he presumed to be from military intelligence.
"You're in big trouble," he recalled the younger soldier telling him as he protested his innocence. "You're an American terrorist enemy combatant. You're the next John Walker Lindh."
After interrogating the driver, Mr. Kar said, the older soldier told him that the driver had admitted the timers were his. But when the three men were taken to the interrogation room again the next day, it was to be photographed together kneeling before a map of Iraq on which their camera equipment and the 35 timers had been carefully arranged.
The men were driven first to a detention camp at Tikrit. Then Mr. Kar and Mr. Faraji were taken by helicopter to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, where their treatment immediately got rougher.
In a crowded processing room, Mr. Kar said, guards yelled and cursed at the two men, with one of them shouting: "You terrorist! You here to kill Americans?"
Another soldier screamed at Mr. Faraji to strip, although the crowd of soldiers around him included women, Mr. Kar said.
"What hit me was, there was no mercy," Mr. Kar recalled.
While Mr. Faraji stayed behind, Mr. Kar was driven to Camp Cropper, at the Baghdad airport, and put in a 7-by-8-foot air-conditioned cell, with a cot, a pillow and a plastic bottle in which to urinate.
Mr. Kar said the F.B.I. agents who interviewed him appeared to have been convinced of the truth of his story after little more than an hour of conversation on May 22; they helped him call his aunt in Los Angeles two days later, then never spoke to him again. He passed a lie-detector test around June 10, he said, yet was not released for another month.
On July 4, as lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California prepared a suit demanding Mr. Kar's freedom, he was brought before a "detainee status board" of three military officers.
The officers presented only one piece of evidence against him, the photograph of the three men kneeling with the timers. They said other evidence in the case was classified.
"I couldn't have more respect for the rank-and-file soldiers, but the system is broken," Mr. Kar said. "When an Iraqi is detained there, he comes out angry and wanting payback."