Insurgents launched a new salvo of attacks five days ahead of the country's crucial constitutional referendum, killing at least 12 Iraqis with suicide car bombs, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings on Monday, police said.
Five mortar shells also were fired at a hotel in the southern city of Hillah where a U.S. embassy regional office is based. One round hit the building and left a large hole in a wall but no casualties were reported, police said.
The latest attacks came as Shiite and Kurdish officials negotiated last-minute changes to the constitution with Sunni Arab leaders in hopes of winning their support ahead of the Oct. 15 referendum. U.S. officials were mediating, USA Today says.
But the sides remained far apart on the basic issues — including the federalism that Shiites and Kurds insist on. Copies of the draft constitution are already being distributed to the public across the country for consideration.
U.S. and Iraqi officials see the referendum as an important step in the country's democratic reforms and the eventual withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces.
But many minority Sunnis plan to vote "no," fearing the document would create two oil-rich and nearly autonomous regions — a Kurdish one in the north and a Shiite one in the south — and leave most Sunnis isolated in central and western Iraq.
Sunni-led insurgent groups have demanded a boycott in the vote and were staging attacks across the country, killing hundreds of Iraqis the last two weeks.
Sunnis can defeat the charter if they garner a two-thirds "no" vote in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces — and they have the potential to make that threshold in four provinces. But turnout is key, since they must outweigh Shiite and Kurdish populations in some of those areas.
On Sunday, militants killed 13 Iraqis, including a Shiite teacher who was dragged out of his classroom and shot to death at a college in the town of Samarra, north of Baghdad.
With Monday's death toll, at least 331 people have been killed across Iraq in the last 15 days. They include nine American soldiers who died during a series of offensives the U.S. military has been waging in western Iraq in an attempt to knock al-Qaeda militants and other insurgents off balance and prevent attacks during Saturday's nationwide vote on the constitution.