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Seeking political progress amid the carnage, the U.S. defense secretary visits Baghdad.

On a day when the U.S. secretary of defense arrived in Iraq to discuss U.S. troop withdrawals and Iraq's halting but real political progress, carnage from car bombs and internal battles around the country claimed more than 50 lives.

Pentagon chief Robert Gates arrived unannounced in the Iraqi capital Sunday evening for talks with Iraqi leaders and U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, a military spokeswoman confirmed.

Gates said Iraq's political leaders face hard choices on how to stabilize the country despite promising new signs of progress toward reconciliation.

"They seem to have become energized over the last few weeks," Gates said. The Pentagon chief told reporters who traveled with him from a conference in Germany that he wants to "see what the prospects are for further success in the next couple of months."

In an interview on the trip to Iraq, Gates cited the recent passage of an amnesty law as an example of political progress. He said he would ask Iraqi leaders to assess the prospects for other important steps such as passing a law that would spell out power-sharing between the provinces and the national government.

He compared the struggle over that idea to the U.S. founding fathers' quest to find a constitutional compromise on how to share power in Congress between big and small states.

Gates said he would make clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other political leaders "our continued eagerness for them to proceed and successfully conclude some of this legislation" considered essential to reconciling Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

It was Gates' first visit this year.

A few hours before he landed in Baghdad, a big suicide car bomb exploded near a local market in Yathrib, north of Baghdad in Salahuddin province, killing at least 23 people and injuring 45.

The explosion brought down part of the market building and may have trapped shoppers in the rubble, according to police.

Another car bomb exploded near Ramadi, killing three, and farther north two car bombs were reported in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city. Both of them targeted Iraqi soldiers and four were killed in one of the explosions, police said.

To the west of Mosul, 21 people were killed in fighting between insurgents and members of the U.S.-funded local Awakening Council militia. An Iraqi army official said al-Qaida insurgents provoked the battle by killing a family of six in the town of Sinjar, and Awakening Council members retaliated at the insurgents' hideout.

Five Awakening members and 10 insurgents died in the early-morning fighting, a U.S. Army spokesman said.

In Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, five members of Awakening groups were found dead Saturday. They were thought to have been kidnapped Friday, the same day many groups there began a strike to demand the ouster of Diyala's police chief, whom they accuse of participating in a death squad.

They have also demanded the arrest of seven police officers they say raped and killed two women last week, assistance in the return of displaced Sunnis to Shiite neighborhoods and the release of prisoners not convicted of a crime or terrorist acts. A mediation meeting was held between various groups Sunday, but it apparently was inconclusive, according to a member of the Awakening in Diyala.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Sniper convicted

A court-martial convicted Sgt. Evan Vela of St. Anthony, Idaho, for murdering an Iraqi man who stumbled on the soldier's hideout last year. Vela was accused of killing the man, planting an AK-47 on him and making false statements to investigators. Vela's defense attorney argued he was too sleep-deprived to grasp what he was doing. Vela was sentenced to 10 years in prison.