BAGHDAD, Iraq - Residents of one of Baghdad's most insurgent-hit neighborhoods received copies of Iraq's draft constitution Thursday, though some refused to take it and some shopkeepers balked at passing it out, fearing reprisals by militants determined to wreck the crucial Oct. 15 referendum.
Insurgents continued their wave of violence with attacks in and around the capital, including the suicide bombing of a minibus, that killed at least 20 Iraqis and an American soldier.
Despite the bloodshed, Iraqis in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora had their first look at the document they will vote on in nine days, though distribution of the U.N.-printed blue booklets - emblazoned "The constitution is in your hands" - got off to a slow start elsewhere.
"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.
She and other Dora residents got copies Thursday morning along with their monthly government-subsidized rations of rice, soap, cooking oil and other staples. The constitution is being distributed through the rationing system because some 80 percent of Iraqis have been enrolled in it since the days of U.N. sanctions against Saddam Hussein.
Hamza al-Baidhani, 60, said the rations distributor he went to refused to pass out the booklets, claiming gunmen threatened to burn his business. "I wish that the Iraqi forces will be responsible for distributing the copies," he said.
About two dozen boxes of the booklets were found thrown in a Dora garbage dump - apparently a sign of opposition or of shopkeepers fears of having the document around.
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.
In Thursday's 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 bomber, seated by the driver, set off his explosives belt as the bus passed a police patrol. At least nine people were killed and nine wounded, said Police Capt. Abbas Ali. The bus was left a burned-out husk.
The U.S. military warned of more violence but said it was making progress in improving security ahead of the referendum and that two major offensives in the Sunni heartland of western Iraq would help provide a safe atmosphere for the vote.
U.S. and Iraqi officials had hoped the drafting of the constitution would unite the country's disparate factions; instead, it has sharply divided them. While Shiite and Kurdish leaders overwhelmingly support the charter, moderate Sunni Arab leaders are urging their followers to vote "no," hoping to defeat a constitution they say will fragment Iraq.
Some 5 million copies arrived in Iraq on Monday, but distribution does not appear to have started in the north and south, where the constitution is expected to pass by a wide margin.
In Basra and Hillah, major Shiite towns in the south, no copies have been passed out, nor in Nineveh - a mixed northern province of Sunnis and Kurds that could be crucial to the constitution's passage or rejection. Kurdish-language copies had not yet reached many Kurdish areas. Parts of Baghdad were expected to start seeing their copies in the coming days.
Dora was one of the first Baghdad districts to get its copies - and the document faced a tough audience.
The rural suburb of farms and fields is largely Sunni and insurgents are intensely active. Nearly every day sees a shooting, drive-by killing or gunbattle, including one Thursday evening.
"Most of our customers refused to take their copies," said shopkeeper Khalid al-Jabouri, 37. "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 was eager to get the booklets out of his shop, handing extra copies to families willing to take them. "They're a danger. We're giving extra copies to other shopkeepers in Shiite areas to pass out there."
One Sunni man said he refused a copy because he already rejects a constitution 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.
Still, many Dora 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's heard, 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 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, but the 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 others. None of the foreigners - believed to be Americans - were hurt.
A roadside bomb killed one 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 death raised to at least 1,945, the number of U.S. military members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.