In another day of execution-style slayings, 24 Iraqis were kidnapped Wednesday in a town northeast of the capital and all but four were later found blindfolded, bearing signs of torture and bullet wounds to the head.
The latest sectarian killings followed the deaths Tuesday of 18 people who were slain while traveling to or from funerals in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
As violence continued to roil the country, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Wednesday to discuss with Iraqi leaders the unrest pitting Shiite Muslims against Sunni Arabs.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki told members of parliament that, despite the street battles of the last week that suggested a possible run-up to civil war, no part of Baghdad would be taken over by either Shiite or Sunni fighters.
Accounts of the deadly kidnappings were fragmented and contradictory, reflecting the deep sectarian divisions. According to the most authoritative accounts, the abductions occurred about 6 a.m. in the bus terminal of the religiously mixed town of Muqdadiya, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Witnesses said many of those kidnapped were Shiite bus drivers who, along with others in the terminal, were loaded onto four commandeered vehicles and driven away.
“Some of the gunmen were masked and others were not,” said Abbas Ibrahim, a kiosk owner in the terminal. “They took the Shiite drivers, handcuffed them and ordered them to lie down in their buses.”
“They were asking people one by one whether he is a Sunni or a Shiite,” said Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Ahmed Awad, whose troops tried to overtake the kidnappers.
He said the chase led his troops to the village of Baloor, where four of those kidnapped were freed. The bodies of the others were found in the afternoon, he said.
Awad contended that local police had the responsibility for providing security at the bus station. He said the army responded after police officers failed to do so.
Maliki’s speech to parliament came after a surge in sectarian violence in Baghdad, beginning Saturday with the bombing of a Shiite mosque. On Sunday, Shiite gunmen retaliated by killing Sunni motorists at neighborhood checkpoints and dragging others from their homes and shooting them in the street.
Much of the violence has been centered in Baghdad’s southern and western neighborhoods, which the army, along with American troops, have been keeping under tenuous control since the bloodshed Sunday.
Maliki said the area would never be wrested from the Iraqi army’s control.
“The Iraqi forces are able to defeat them,” he told lawmakers. “They tried and failed, and all of their tries will be failures.”
At the same time, Maliki said the army was in need of an overhaul. But he urged support for Iraqi troops because they were risking their lives in the country’s chaotic atmosphere.
“They are being killed every day,” he said.
The prime minister also said that reconciliation and averting civil war were key to the country’s survival, a common theme in his speeches. However, his pleas took on greater urgency in light of the recent violence, much of it in Baghdad.
The shootings and lawlessness broke out despite the deployment of 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and 8,000 U.S. troops as part of a security plan implemented by Maliki just over a month ago.
“This reconciliation is the final savior of the security situation,” Maliki told lawmakers. “When some go against it, we will take the measures required to stop them. We all have a final chance, and if it fails I don’t know what the fate of Iraq will be.”
During his visit, the U.S. defense secretary met with Maliki to discuss the deteriorating situation on the streets. Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him at a base north of Baghdad that the new Iraqi government was not ready to help decide the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq.
In the capital, the day’s violence included a suicide bombing at a popular restaurant in the New Baghdad neighborhood that killed seven and wounded 22, police said.
And in an incident similar to Tuesday’s attack, gunmen fired on a car in Baghdad headed to a funeral in Najaf, killing one person and wounding another.
Meanwhile, two corpses were found in the volatile Dora neighborhood. Because of the danger, the bodies couldn’t be collected until armed protection arrived. The victims, who were blindfolded and handcuffed, had been shot in the head.
A car bomb detonated on a highway in eastern Baghdad near the Finance Ministry, killing one and injuring two. Another roadside bomb exploded in the Waziriya neighborhood, killing two and injuring two.
A suicide car bombing after nightfall killed seven soldiers at an Iraqi army checkpoint.
Elsewhere, a pharmacist in Basra was gunned down just after she left the drugstore where she worked, and gunmen killed a police officer in Kirkuk.
Times special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Basra and Mosul contributed to this report.