BAGHDAD — An Iraqi student shot his American gym teacher to death and then killed himself Thursday at a private Christian school in the usually peaceful Kurdish north of Iraq.
The shooting in Sulaimaniyah, the second largest city in the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, came after a heated argument between the two at the English-language Medes School, local police said.
Students heard shots in their classroom at about 10:30 a.m., during recess, and ran back into the room to find the teacher, whom relatives identified as Jeremiah Small of Cosmopolis, Wash., west of the state capital of Olympia, and a classmate, Biyar Sardar al Talabani, lying on the ground, according to the spokesman for police in Sulaimaniyah province, Sarkawit Ahmed.
Small had three bullets in his head and chest and Talabani had a bullet in his head, Ahmed said, adding that Talabani died from his gunshot wound about three hours later in Sulaimaniyah's emergency hospital.
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Classmates described Talabani, who was 18 and a grandson of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's half brother, as well behaved. Officials say there doesn't appear to have been a religious or political motive for the shooting. But a relative of the young man's, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said he'd argued with Small over what she described as the teacher's open Christianity.
"Biyar was angry at this teacher. He said he spoke too much about Christianity; he spoke too much about the Bible, and he was always praying during classes," the relative said.
During Iraq's recent years of sectarian warfare, Sulaimaniyah escaped serious violence. The Medes School's website notes: "North Iraq is relatively peaceful and secure. Kurds exhibit a strongly favorable disposition towards the West. Americans serving in North Iraq are able to freely walk city streets."
The victim's father, J. Dan Small, wrote on his Facebook page that "Our oldest, Jeremiah, was martyred in Kurdistan this a.m." He posted the Christian hymn "How Firm a Foundation," which reads, in part: "Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed, the soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose, I will not, I will not desert to his foes."
The school was established in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, in response to the plight of Iraq's Kurds, who at the time were being persecuted by the late dictator Saddam Hussein. It was founded by a Christian fellowship organization out of Nashville, Tenn., called Servant Group International. The school was known to be a favorite of the region's elite, and it was such a success that within years of its opening the group opened two other schools nearby.
The region's peaceful nature could have been a factor in the shooting. Ahmed said it would never have occurred to anyone to check students for weapons.
Sulaimaniyah Mayor Zana Hama Salih said all aspects of the shooting were being investigated but that it appeared to have a simple explanation: "It is an ordinary criminal act."
In a statement, the American Embassy in Baghdad said it was awaiting the results of the investigation. Within an hour of the shooting, a delegation from the U.S. consulate in Kurdistan arrived in Sulaimaniyah in a motorcade to speak with security officials and visit the morgue where Small's remains had been taken.
Ahmed noted, "This is an isolated case and I doubt that it will have any serious effect upon the normal life of foreigners in Kurdistan."
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Matthew Schofield contributed to this story from Washington.)
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