BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Some shopkeepers refused to hand out copies of the constitution, fearing death threats from insurgents. Others tried to get rid of them as fast as possible. Two dozen boxes ended up in a garbage dump, the blue booklets spilling out into the trash.

“They’re a danger,” shopkeeper Khalid al-Jabouri said Thursday as he pressed multiple copies on any Iraqi who would take them, trying to quickly empty the cartons delivered to his store for distribution to voters before the national referendum on Oct. 15.

The first copies of the charter were given out in a Baghdad neighborhood. But it was a tough place to start – the southern Dora district, where insurgents run rampant and there are killings nearly every day.

For residents who received copies, it was finally a chance to judge for themselves the constitution that has been strongly backed by leaders of the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and the Kurds, but is opposed by leaders of the formally dominant Sunni Arab minority.

“If we like it, we will vote ‘yes.’ If we don’t, we’ll say ‘no,”‘ said Lamia Dhyab, a Shiite woman in a head-to-toe veil after getting her copy, emblazoned with the slogan “The constitution is in your hands.”

Nearby a campaign poster for the referendum proclaimed, “Don’t let others decide your constitution on your behalf.”

Elsewhere, the process was slow in getting started. Booklets are being distributed at stores that give out monthly government-subsidized rations, but in cities in the north and south, shops had yet to receive their copies. Other neighborhoods in the capital were expected to start passing them out in the coming days.

Sunni insurgents, determined to wreck the referendum, continued their wave of violence with attacks in and around the capital that killed at least 20 Iraqis and an American soldier.

In the deadliest assault, a suicide bomber boarded a minibus packed with 14 passengers – officers going to the police academy and students and workers headed home to the Shiite district of Sadr City. The blast killed at least nine and wounded nine more, Police Capt. Abbas Ali said.

The terrorist group Al-Qaida in Iraq has called for increased attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began this week, and more than 290 people have been killed in attacks the past 11 days – many of them Shiites.

The drafting of the constitution – a process U.S. and Iraqi officials hoped would unite the country’s disparate factions – has instead sharply divided them. Moderate Sunni Arab leaders are urging their followers to vote “no,” hoping to defeat a charter they say will fragment Iraq.

In Dora, residents lined up for their monthly stocks of powdered milk, cooking oil, lentils and other staples – and were handed the blue constitution booklets.

“Most of our customers refused to take their copies,” said al-Jabouri, the shopkeeper. “Some families told me they heard the gunmen were watching them, so they are afraid they will see them getting copies and come to take revenge.”

Al-Jabouri, a 37-year-old Sunni, said he was handing out extra copies to families willing to take them and sending copies to shopkeepers in Shiite areas to pass out.

Hamza al-Baidhani, 60, said the rations distributor he went to refused to pass out the booklets, claiming gunmen threatened to burn his shop. “I wish that the Iraqi forces were distributing the copies,” he said.

One Sunni man said he refused a copy because he already rejects a constitution that he believes was written “in Washington and will be imposed on us in Iraq.”

“If I had the ability, I would punish the shopkeepers who are distributing them,” said Ali Jameel al-Jabouri, an English-literature postgraduate student.

Dora is a rural suburb of farms and fields that is largely Sunni and insurgents are intensely active there. Nearly every day sees a shooting, drive-by killing or gunbattle, including one Thursday evening.

Still, many residents who did take copies were eager to look them over, and their opinions didn’t always fall along sectarian lines.

Omar Ali, a 25-year-old Sunni, was taking his copy home to his 13-member family and was open to approving it. “If I find this text satisfies our aspirations I will give ‘yes,’ if not I will give ‘no’ – although I have some reservations on federalism so I need to read it carefully.”

From what he had heard previously, Jawad Kadhim, a Shiite, didn’t like it. “I reject it because it will lead to the partition of Iraq,” he said, leafing through the booklet.

U.S. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch warned of a likely spike in insurgent attacks before the referendum but said dual military offensives in the western province of Anbar will make “a safe and secure environment for the people of Iraq during the referendum.”

Thousands of U.S. troops, along with hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, are fighting in several Euphrates River towns to uproot al-Qaida in Iraq militants the military says are using the area as a base to launch attacks elsewhere.

In Haditha, one of the towns that troops swept into two days ago in Operation River Gate, U.S. Marines searched homes and plodded through fields of date trees and pomegranates, hunting for suspected insurgents.

A roadside bomb hit a Marine patrol in Haditha on Thursday, causing no serious injuries. Marines traced the triggering wires to a nearby mosque, where they found buried a large weapons cache. Three men, including two mosque caretakers, were detained.

Posted outside one of the mosque’s doors was a “note of repentance” from a former city policeman renouncing his job and begging for forgiveness from al-Qaida members for working with security forces, according to Iraqi translators who read the flier as U.S. forces dug up the weapons.

In Baghdad, a suicide car bomb hit a convoy of private security contractors in an eastern district, killing three Iraqi bystanders and wounding six. None of the foreigners – believed to be Americans – were hurt.

A roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in northern Baghdad, and a car bomb hit another U.S. patrol in a central neighborhood, wounding four Americans, the military said.

The latest death raised to at least 1,944, the number of U.S. military personnel who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

AP-ES-10-06-05 2134EDT


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