updated 11/16/2006 5:39:43 PM ET 2006-11-16T22:39:43

Iraq’s higher education minister said Thursday that as many as 80 victims from a mass kidnapping earlier this week remain in captivity, and that some of the 70 who have been freed were tortured.

On Tuesday, gunmen disguised in the blue camouflage uniforms of police commandos raided the Higher Education Ministry in Karradah, a primarily Shiite area of downtown Baghdad, handcuffed scores of people and took them away in about 20 pickup trucks.

Government officials have given varying numbers on how many people were abducted, ranging from a high of about 150 to a low of 40 to 50. They also have conflicted on how many captives have been freed, raising skepticism about the scope of the abduction as well as how the victims were treated.

Higher Education Minister Abed Theyab said 70 of 150 hostages were released, reaffirming a figure given Wednesday and saying those freed “were tortured and suffered a lot.”

But National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie issued a statement that contradicted Theyab and claimed only 50 people total were kidnapped, all were released and nobody was killed.

The assault was widely believed to have been the work of the Mahdi Army, the heavily armed militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and it raised questions about Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s commitment to wipe out the Shiite militias of his prime political backers: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement.

Abduction believed to be retaliatory
The mass abduction was seen as retaliation for the recent kidnapping of 50 Shiites south of Baghdad. Most, if not all of the latest victims who were not immediately released were Sunnis, the Higher Education Ministry spokesman said.

Theyab — a Sunni Muslim — said on state television that his decision to suspend his membership in the Shiite-controlled 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 Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, which runs the police and security agencies.

He labeled “a farce” the lack of security that has allowed the widespread kidnappings and killings of people such as college students and professors in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

Earlier, Theyab spokesman Basil al-Khatib said some of those freed after the mass kidnapping 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 told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. He said he didn’t know how many hostages had fallen victim to such abuse.

Deadly attacks continued in the capital, with suspected insurgents and militias using guns, bombs and mortar shells to kill 18 Iraqis. Four U.S. soldiers also were reported killed during combat missions.

U.S. forces said they killed nine suspected al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents — including several who were later found to be wearing suicide bomb vests — during a raid in Youssifiyah, a rural area south of Baghdad. Nine other suspected insurgents were detained in the raid, the military said.

Iraqis begin new operation
The military also said that more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers began conducting a military operation on Wednesday aimed at clearing villages of suspected insurgents and their weapons caches near Iraq’s northern city of Kirkuk.

The cordon and search operation, relying on the support of U.S. air and artillery from a nearby military base, was taking place in the Zytoon and Rashad valleys, about 25 miles south of Kirkuk.

Iraqi soldiers planned to remain in the area after the operation to protect civilians and to deny insurgents sanctuary in the area, the military said.

In the Iraq war, a main U.S. goal is to train Iraqi forces to take control of some areas of the country so that American forces can withdraw to their bases or send more soldiers to hard-hit areas such as Baghdad.

Nine killed in bakery
In Thursday’s deadliest attack in the capital, gunmen opened fire on a bakery, killing nine people, including employees and customers, police Capt. Mohammed Abdel-Ghani said. Such attacks are usually carried out by Sunni militants since most of the bakeries in the city are run by Iraqis from the country’s Shiite majority.

“The gunmen stormed into the bakery and killed workers while they were baking. They had done nothing bad,” said one man who joined other residents outside the small store after the attack. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his own safety.

Seven civilians and two Iraqi policeman also died in eight other attacks in Baghdad on Thursday.

The U.S. military said three Task Force Lightning soldiers assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, were killed Wednesday in Diyala province in northeastern Iraq, one by small arms fire and two by a roadside bomb. The blast 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. So far this month in Iraq, 44 American service members have been killed or died.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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