More than 2,000 Marines have begun deploying to Iraq's restive Anbar province, U.S. military officials said Thursday, a day after the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East told Congress the region is not under control.
Pentagon officials said the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at California's Camp Pendleton, was already in the theatre of operation when it received orders from CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid, to move to Anbar, the heart of the Sunni insurgency.
Multiple U.S. and Iraqi military operations in the past two years have failed to secure the region. The Marines will be joining the roughly 30,000 U.S. forces already stationed in the region.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday, Abizaid, who ordered the deployment at the request of commanders in Anbar, acknowledged that the province lacked basic law enforcement operations.
"There is a problem in Anbar province and there is a big problem with pay getting to the police in Anbar," Abizaid said. "And it has to do with the immaturity of the Iraqi government and suspicions within the national police organization that people in the Sunni areas are not being paid in order to advance the sectarian agenda."
Four U.S. Army soldiers also were reported killed during combat missions.
Meanwhile, Iraq's higher education minister said on Thursday that as many as 80 kidnap victims still were still being held, disputing government claims that most has been released.
Minister Abed Theyab reaffirmed that 70 of 150 hostages were released, saying those freed "were tortured and suffered a lot."
Speaking on state television, Theyab — a Sunni Muslim — also said his decision to suspend his membership in the Cabinet until the crisis was resolved was not driven by politics. He nevertheless issued a sharp attack on the country's security apparatus.
"Those in charge of security should be responsible for security," he said of the Ministry of Interior, which runs the police and security agencies.
Kidnappers who snatched scores of Iraqis from a government ministry building in Baghdad tortured and killed some of them, a government official said Thursday.
Earlier Thursday, Basil al-Khatib, spokesman for Theyab, said some of those freed after the mass kidnapping at the ministry on Tuesday told officials that some victims had been killed by their abductors, believed to be Shiite militiamen.
"Some of the hostages were tortured and killed, according to eyewitnesses from among the captives who were released," al-Khatib said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He said he didn't know how many hostages had fallen victim to such abuse.
About 70 of the captives were released on Tuesday night and Wednesday.
Government ministries have given wildly varying figures on the number of people seized, with reports ranging from a high of about 150 to a low of 40 to 50.
National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie issued a statement Thursday that contradicted the Theyab and claimed only 50 people total had been kidnapped, all were released and no one was killed.
In Youssifiyah, a rural area 12 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. soldiers were conducting a raid and demanding that Iraqi civilians exit buildings when they saw several armed men in a nearby wooded area, the military said. The soldiers called in air support, which opened fire, killing nine suspected Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents, several of whom were later found to be wearing suicide bomb vests, the military said.
The soldiers also detained nine other suspected insurgents during the raid, the military said.
Deadly attacks continued in the capital, with suspected insurgents and militias using guns, bombs and mortar shells to kill 15 Iraqis.
In Thursday's deadliest attack in the capital, gunmen opened fire on a bakery, killing nine people, police said.
Such attacks are usually carried out by Sunni-Arab militants since most of the bakeries in the city are run by Iraqis from the country's Shiite majority.
Those killed in the shooting at 7:30 a.m. in Baghdad's eastern neighborhood of Zayouna included employees of the bakery and its customers, said police Capt. Mohammed Abdel-Ghani.
The attack at the al-Rafidain Bakery left pools of blood on the floor, some containing pieces of Middle Eastern bread that had been dropped and furniture overturned during the panic.
"The gunmen stormed into the bakery and killed workers while they were baking. They had done nothing bad," said one man who joined other local residents outside the small store after the attack. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his own safety.
Four civilians and two Iraqi policemen also died in six other attacks in Baghdad on Thursday morning.
Three Task Force Lightning soldiers assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, were killed on Wednesday in Diyala province in northeastern Iraq, one by small arms fire and two by a roadside bomb, the military said. The bomb also wounded two soldiers.
On Tuesday, a service member from the Army's Multinational Corps-Iraq was killed by small arms fire during an operation in Baghdad, the military said.
The killings raised the number of American war dead to 2,862.
The Associated Press and FOX News' Nick Simeone contributed to this report.