Attacks and battles across Iraq killed about 50 people Sunday as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a surprise visit to Baghdad for talks with top American military officials.
In one of the deadliest incidents in weeks, a suicide car bomber killed at least 25 people in central Iraq, north of the capital. The bomb went off at an Iraqi checkpoint guarding a (Yathrib) village marketplace near the town of Balad.
Farther north, near the city of Mosul, gunmen attacked two villages at dawn, triggering battles with neighborhood militias that killed at least 21 people. The US military says 10 insurgents and five US-allied militiamen died, and a local militia leader , Sheik Fawaz al-Jarba says six civilians also were killed.
In another suicide attack near Mosul, police and members of an Iraqi group that opposes al-Qaida opened fire on a tanker truck heading toward their checkpoint. The truck exploded, killing four civilians.
US.commanders say Mosul is the last major urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq. Many insurgents were driven north by US-led offensives in Baghdad and surrounding areas last year.
In Baghdad, Defense Secretary Gates and General David Patraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, were said to be discussing the possible withdrawal of more US troops from the country.
Gates said he would ask Iraqi leaders about progress on national reconciliation, including the drafting of a provincial powers law giving more autonomy to Iraq's regional administrations.
The US military says documents captured from leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq last November show the group has been weakened in several parts of the country. Military officials said Sunday that a letter written by a senior al-Qaida emir gives a pessimistic account of the group's prospects in western Iraq's Anbar province.
Troops also found the diary of an al-Qaida in Iraq leader in a raid near Balad. US officials say the author wrote that American-backed neighborhood watch groups have greatly restricted al-Qaida activities in the area. However, a senior US spokesman (Rear Admiral Gregory Smith) says the documents do not signal that al-Qaida has been defeated across Iraq.