18 Iraqis killed by insurgents trying to wreck constitutional referendum

Insurgents launched a new salvo of attacks five days ahead of the country's crucial constitutional referendum, killing at least 18 Iraqis and a U.S. soldier 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. regional embassy office is based, with one round hitting the building and leaving a large hole in a wall, police said. No casualties were reported.

The latest attacks came as Shiite and Kurdish officials continued to negotiate with Sunni Arab leaders over last-minute additions to the constitution, trying to win Sunni support ahead of next weekend's referendum. U.S. officials were acting as mediators.

But the sides appeared to remain far apart on Monday over basic issues,including the federalism that Shiites and Kurds insist on _ and copies of the draft constitution already are being distributed to the public across the country.

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. A.M.

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