MADAIN, Iraq — A U.S.-allied Iraqi council member sprayed American troops with gunfire Monday, killing two soldiers and wounding three and an interpreter, Iraqi authorities and witnesses said. The attack occurred minutes after they emerged from a weekly joint meeting on reconstruction in this volatile town southeast of Baghdad.
Raed Mahmoud Ajil, a former high school principal in his mid-40s, was known as a respected city council member and devoted educator who'd recently returned to Iraq after completing his master's degree in India, stunned colleagues said. U.S. troops shot and killed him at the scene.
Ajil's colleagues said they could think of no motive for the deadly rampage, which is thought to be the first incident of a U.S.-allied Iraqi politician carrying out such an attack. Ajil comes from a distinguished Sunni Muslim family. His brother is security chief for the Iraqi Ministry of Justice and a cousin is a high-ranking judge, relatives said.
Ajil's family said that he'd suffered from bouts of depression and sporadic epileptic seizures, which he masked in his role as a public servant. Relatives knew him to be friendly to U.S. troops and said he had no qualms about working alongside them, even though many in this mixed Sunni-Shiite Muslim town view American forces as occupiers.
"(The Americans) used to love him. They gave him a contract for a project he was working on. He spoke English fluently with them and they used to like him so much," said Sherif Abdullah Aziz, 47, a cousin. "There is no explanation that we know of for what happened."
Fadil Ahmed Abed, a Sunni council member who was formerly the chairman, said members of the council met with the Americans at about 10 a.m. after a ceremony to open a new city park. Abed said Ajil had sat silent during the meeting except when his signature was required for a school maintenance project. The meeting ran until about 1 p.m. As the Americans were walking out of the heavily guarded council headquarters, the shootings began.
"I was in the building. We heard gunshots followed by heavy shooting from the Americans. We tried to go out, but the troops stopped us," Abed said. "After that, the Americans came to us and said that council member Raed attacked U.S. soldiers."
"The reason behind this is absolutely unknown," Abed added. "The meeting was very routine. There were suggestions about reconstruction and about schools."
The U.S. military command in Baghdad would confirm only that two American soldiers were killed and three others were wounded, along with an interpreter, as they were leaving the city council building in Madain.
Abed didn't witness the shootings, but he said that authorities had told him that Ajil had walked out of the building with the Americans, rushed over to his truck and returned with an assault rifle. Neither the local authorities nor the U.S. military could offer details on the circumstances of the shootings. At 5 p.m., the scene of the attack was still littered with bullet casings, puddles of blood and a camouflage protective pad that's part of a U.S. soldier's uniform.
A married father of three, Ajil was elected to the council in 2003 as an independent, relatives and colleagues said. In 2004, when sectarian violence in the town halted reconstruction, the city council was dissolved and many members fled or were killed.
Ajil left Iraq to complete his master's degree in India, returning frequently to check on his family and city, colleagues and relatives said. He'd returned for good only in the past week and had resumed his civic work. Abed said the council had yet to be fully reinstalled, though the members showed up for regularly scheduled meetings.
Ajil's colleagues said that his life was focused on education; he'd graduated from Baghdad University and served as a high school principal for four years. He was the chairman of the council's education committee. Relatives said he'd struggled with depression since his youth and had stabbed a relative in a sudden fit of rage in 2000.
"When he talks to you, he's very polite, an educated man, respectful," said Aziz, his cousin. "But back at home, he would go and close the door to his room and stay there for two days."
For decades, archaeologists have descended on Madain, an ancient town along the Tigris River that was home to the early cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon. Since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, however, Madain has been a breeding ground for sectarian tensions. At its worst, the bloodshed shut down most public life.
In recent months, U.S. and Iraqi authorities have reduced the violence with an increased Iraqi military presence and the formation of U.S.-backed militias, known as awakening councils, to help American forces in the fight against Sunni and Shiite extremists. Abed praised Iraqi troops' reaction to the incident, saying that they'd protected terrified politicians in the building and escorted them to safety.
Anti-U.S. sentiment remains widespread, with many locals viewing the American presence as an intrusion. As news of Ajil's killings spread, some residents hailed him as a hero. Several uttered his name and added, "God rest his soul," and a taxi driver at the scene pointed to the bloodstains and said, "the pigs deserved this."
Ajil's body is in a morgue; his funeral is scheduled for Tuesday morning.
(McClatchy special correspondent Dulaimy reported from Madain, Allam from Baghdad.)