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Iraq Transition

Twenty bodies found in Iraq after abductions

Rumsfeld visits troops; Hussein stages hunger strike

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Iraqis gather at the scene of a suicide bombing Wednesday at a Baghdad restaurant, where seven people died.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Twenty people were found dead Wednesday northeast of Baghdad after gunmen kidnapped 24 civilians, an Iraqi official said.

The abductions occurred Wednesday morning at a bus station in Muqtadya, a city northeast of the Diyala provincial capital of Baquba.

The victims were civilians and bus drivers, said the official from the Diyala Joint Coordination Center.

In other violence Wednesday, nine Iraqis died in the capital: Seven were killed and 20 wounded in a suicide bombing at a southern Baghdad restaurant; and two civilians were killed and two others wounded in a car bombing in central Baghdad, police said.

More than 100 people have died in violence since the weekend despite a widely publicized security crackdown in the capital.

Rumsfeld makes surprise visit

The killings and abductions came as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made an unannounced visit to Iraq to meet with U.S. troops and confer with Iraqi leaders on how to stanch the violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

Rumsfeld spoke with 700 U.S. troops at a military base in Balad, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Baghdad, before moving on to the capital to see Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"Each time I come to Iraq, I see progress," Rumsfeld told the soldiers. "You're making progress. ... You're making history."

Taking questions from the troops, Rumsfeld emphasized that the solution to violence in Iraq isn't a military one.

Instead, he pointed to the national reconciliation plan: a grass-roots diplomatic and political initiative to reach out to the Sunni community, predominant in the insurgency after losing power in Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, briefed Rumsfeld about the security situation and the status of security forces.

"I think you all know the security in Baghdad is difficult, and we are working very hard with the new government" to subdue insurgents and death squads undermining stability, Casey said.

Casey attributed part of the violence to al Qaeda in Iraq and other militants in the aftermath of the death last month of leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike. Terror groups in Iraq and the Iraqi insurgency are largely Sunni.

"What we are seeing now as a counter to that is death squads primarily from Shia extremists" that are retaliating against civilians, Casey said.

Hussein on hunger strike

As violence raged, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and three of his war crimes co-defendants staged a hunger strike to protest their treatment by the court and what they say is poor security for their defense lawyers, according to the U.S military.

Hussein has refused meals since Friday night, though he is drinking coffee with sugar and water with nutrients, said Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a U.S. military spokesman.

This is at least the third time Hussein and other defendants have gone on a hunger strike since their trial began in October.

They went without food for 11 days in February to protest what they called mistreatment by the Iraqi High Tribunal that is trying them on charges in the killings of more than 140 men in the town of Dujail in 1982.

Hussein went without food for several days in June to protest the killing of an Iraqi attorney who sat on the defense team.

Curry said that despite their refusal to eat, Hussein and the others are in good health and are receiving appropriate medical care. He said they have access to physicians at all times, and additional medical attention will be focused on those who refuse their meals.

It was not immediately known which of the co-defendants were involved in the hunger strike with Hussein.

Questions for prime minister

The Iraqi prime minister faced tough questions Wednesday from Iraqi parliamentarians over the volatile environment in Baghdad.

Al-Maliki condemned the wave of violence and said an important component in the fight is developing proper intelligence to counter the attackers. He also praised the security forces.

Al-Maliki denied rumors that parts of Baghdad were about to fall and asserted that security forces are in control everywhere.

He stressed the need to clamp down on sectarianism. Militias remain one of the government's main concerns.

Sunni parliamentarian Adnan al-Dulaimi said militias appear to be behind the sectarian tensions in Baghdad's Hay al-Jihad neighborhood, where more than 40 Sunnis were killed Sunday.

Al-Maliki said he hopes the newly formed National Reconciliation Higher Commission will meet soon.

"We are determined to make the national reconciliation plan succeed," al-Maliki told lawmakers, "because it is the last resort."

He said intermediaries have approached the government on behalf of insurgent groups that are considering joining the political process.

Problem of sectarianism

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq said this week that "violent sectarianism is the now the main challenge" for the country. Tensions have flared since the bombing February 22 of Al-Askariya Mosque, a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

The security crackdown hasn't done the job so far and needs to be improved, said Zalmay Khalilzad, speaking Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"This sectarianism is the source of frequent tragedies on the streets of Baghdad," Khalilzad said. "It's imperative for the new Iraqi government to make major progress in dealing with this challenge in the next six months."

Despite the significant strife, Khalilzad said other factors lead him to conclude that the country has not descended into civil war.

"State institutions are holding," and leaders of different communities want to remain in the government, he said.

Other developments

  • Public defenders for a former U.S. soldier charged in the alleged rape of a young Iraqi woman and the killings of her and her family in March requested a gag order in the case. Former Pfc. Steven D. Green and four other soldiers are charged with murder and rape. Another soldier has been charged with failing to report the matter but was not accused of participating. All five are charged with conspiring with Green. (Full story)
  • Attackers killed between five and 16 people Tuesday in a blast near Baghdad's Green Zone, authorities said. The account of the violence varies. The U.S.-led coalition said that "15 local nationals and an Iraqi policeman" died when three bombs detonated outside the Green Zone, the fortified district that's headquarters for U.S. and Iraqi officials. Police, however, said five people were killed. Gunmen in Baghdad also stormed a bus heading to a funeral in the southern city of Najaf and killed all 10 people on board. (Full story)
  • CNN's Arwa Damon, Jomana Karadsheh and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.

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