When a white-haired man in a business suit interrupted an interview that the Iraqi vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi, was giving to four reporters at his office in Baghdad on Sunday morning, it was clear something was wrong.
The man nodded to the vice president. There were several urgent exchanges in Arabic, and all eyes turned to Mahdi, who sat stoically in his chair.
In a country where suicide bombings and other massacres are commonplace, it is not unusual for meetings to be interrupted with word of the latest catastrophe. But the hushed voices and wide-eyed bewilderment suggested something different.
Aides urged Mahdi to end the meeting. He demurred. Composed and self-assured, the vice president had earlier overruled aides who wanted the session to be off the record, saying it would not change his answers. Tape recorders were rolling. Later, they would capture a brief, dramatic moment.
"I think we've got to wrap it up," an aide said in English.
"We can take three questions," Mahdi said.
The meeting continued for 10 minutes.
"We have to be very open in the political process, to include more and more people -- this is the way to isolate terrorists," said Mahdi, 62, a pragmatic economist and a Shiite Muslim who became one of the country's leading politicians when the government was formed in April and offices were divvied up among Shiite and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds.
"The foreign factor is a very impressive factor and a very destructive one," Mahdi said, referring to foreigners, particularly members of the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq, who are fighting against the government and U.S. troops. "I think it's important that we can control the Syrian borders."
Again, an aide pleaded with the vice president to end the interview. This time, Mahdi relented.
"I would like to stay with you, but they tell me they've assassinated my brother," the vice president said. "He was going to work, and he was shot."
There were gasps, handshakes, condolences. "I wanted to talk for an hour or two," Mahdi said, apologizing and promising another meeting.
Aides huddled outside. "This guy is made of steel," one said.
The aide, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said the vice president's older brother, Ghalib Abdul Mahdi, a cabinet adviser, was ambushed by gunmen that morning while driving to work. His driver was killed instantly. But doctors stabilized Mahdi's brother at the hospital, and the vice president agreed to go ahead with the interview. Apparently there had been serious internal bleeding, the aide said, and the vice president's brother died at 11:30 a.m.
The aide said Ghalib Abdul Mahdi did not travel with bodyguards. "They targeted him because of who his brother is," he said. "They've killed several siblings of Iraqi government officials."
Al Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility for the killing in a message posted on a Web site frequently used by the group, the Reuters news agency reported.
In other violence reported Sunday, Iraqi police discovered 14 bodies in a shallow grave in Tall Afar, a northwestern city 40 miles from the Syrian border, Chief Warrant Officer John Hurtado of the U.S. Army's 3rd Cavalry Regiment said in a statement. Two of the victims had been beheaded, the others bound and shot in the head.
The bodies were found Friday, and the victims appeared to have been dead for at least a month, the statement said. About 8,500 U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted an offensive against insurgents in Tall Afar last month.
Elsewhere, at least 11 people were killed in attacks across the country. The U.S. military said a Marine died Sunday of injuries suffered Saturday in a roadside bombing near Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq.