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American gym teacher shot by student in Iraq school in alleged murder-suicide

Students cry in the schoolyard of a school in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, after the fatal shooting of an American gym teacher in an apparent murder-suicide by a student on Thursday, March, 1, 2012. AP Photo/Yahya Ahmed

(CBS/AP) SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq - An American gym teacher at a Christian school in northern Iraq was killed Thursday when a student in a crowded classroom pulled out a gun, shot the teacher, and then himself, officials and eyewitnesses said.

The quarrel was first easily ignored by other students: a disagreement between 18-year-old Biyar Sarwar and U.S. teacher Jeremiah Small that was barely audible. It quickly escalated into gunfire and ended in a rare, violent death of an American in Iraq's most peaceful region.

The 33-year-old Small was originally from a town in western Washington State. His father, J. Dan Small, confirmed the death on Facebook: "Our oldest, Jeremiah, was martyred in Kurdistan this a.m.," he wrote.

Eyewitnesses described a scene of chaos in the classroom of the English-speaking school, with some students fainting in fear after the gunfire erupted.

Ahmed Mohammed said he was sitting in the front of the classroom and had not given the argument much thought when it began. "Then I heard the gunshot," he said. "I turned my head and saw the body of the American teacher on the ground with blood near it. All the students started to run out of the room. Seconds later, as I was running to reach the school gate, I heard another gunshot."

A few minutes later, another student shouted that Sarwar had killed himself, Mohammed said.

"So I rushed back to the class with other students to see the teacher on the ground with three bullets in his head and chest and bloody, and Biyar with a bullet in his head."

Sulaimaniyah police spokesman Sarkawit Mohammed said the shooting appeared to be a murder-suicide, but provided no motive. He said Sarwar hid the gun in his clothes.

Students described Small as a devout Christian who frequently praised Christianity and prayed in the classroom. However, Sulaimaniyah Mayor Zana Hama Saleh said Small was not a missionary and cast doubt that the killing was motivated by sectarian issues because Sarwar "had no radical religious tendencies."

"Maybe the student had mental problems," Saleh said.

Jeff Dokkestul, board member with Nashville based Servant Group International, for whom Small worked, said Small was one of nine American teachers at the Sulaimaniyah school, which he said is run by Iraqi Kurds.

"We believe this is an isolated incident, just like (what) happens in the U.S.," Dokkestul said in an interview. He said the school operates "as a Christian school serving the Muslim and Christian community, a mixed community."

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said in a statement, "We have heard reports regarding the shooting of a teacher in Sulaimaniyah and are working through our consulate in Irbil and Iraqi authorities to ascertain the details of the incident."

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