KARBALA, Iraq (AP) — The trip was intended to give Tabarak Thaer a glimpse of the world beyond Iraq's violence and misery. Instead, it brought the 10-year-old face to face with terror when insurgents boarded the bus she was riding, forced the male passengers off, and killed them.
Although the attackers were dressed in military-style uniforms and initially said they were only checking the bus, Tabarak sensed danger right away. She slipped her cellphone into her shoe when the insurgents demanded all passengers hand them over.
"They claimed they wanted to help us, but I was suspicious," the cherub-faced Tabarak told The Associated Press in an interview this week. "I grew terrified when they start to beat and yell at the women."
Tabarak's story is the first account to surface by a survivor of Monday's hijacking in Iraq's Sunni-dominated western Anbar province that left 22 Shiite pilgrims dead. The passengers were from the Shiite holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq, and were headed to the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus, Syria.
Although violence across Iraq has dropped dramatically in recent years, deadly attacks still happen every day — some in which dozens of people are killed. This week's bus massacre was particularly alarming because it recalled the worst days of the war, when extremists routinely posed as security forces and stopped cars at fake checkpoints, and either killed or kidnapped motorists.
Most of the fake checkpoints of years past were manned by al-Qaida agents, and Shiite officials this week blamed the Sunni-based terrorist network for masterminding the bus attack in an attempt to re-ignite sectarian violence.
It was to be Tabarak's first trip out of Iraq, a vacation with her grandparents, two aunts and her brother and sister that was promised after she aced her school exams this summer. Even though Syria has been hit by violent protests in recent months, that has not stopped pilgrims from visiting its religious sites.
Rumbling down the remote desert highway between Baghdad and the Jordanian border, the bus stopped at what looked like a checkpoint blocking the road, and the uniformed men climbed aboard.
The women and children were told to stay on the bus while the men were marched out. Tabarak's grandfather was among them but was soon allowed to return.
The insurgents led the men down the road and out of sight, but Tabarak could still hear their voices, begging to be let go. "The only answer they got was slander," she said.
A half-hour later, the sounds of shooting began — a steady drumbeat of bullets fired one by one.
"I panicked when I heard the crack of the gunfire," Tabarak said. "I had the feeling that our turn would come."
"It was long moments of anxiety."
Once the gunmen left, the survivors frantically discussed how they could alert authorities. Tabarak shouted to the passengers that she still had her phone, and handed it to her grandfather to start making calls.
A few hours later, an Iraqi army patrol found the bus of weeping and wailing pilgrims, and they headed back to Karbala, 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad.
"This great and brilliant deed by my granddaughter saved us from an unknown fate," said Tabarak's grandfather, Mohammed Ali, 65.
Shiite pilgrims have been a favorite target for Sunni insurgents who are trying to revive the sectarian violence that brought Iraqi to the brink of civil war just a few years ago. Monday's attack comes less than four months before U.S. troops — who surged into Iraq in 2007 to stem the religious killings — are scheduled to leave.
On Thursday, Iraqi authorities arrested 10 men from the Anbar provincial town of Rutbah, near the Jordanian border, and accused them of being agents for al-Qaida. Karbala's provincial council chairman, Mohammed al-Moussawi, said the insurgents clearly "aimed at igniting sectarian tensions in Iraq."
There's been no violent response to the bus attack from Iraq's Shiite community against Sunnis — unlike the kind that used to spur endless volleys of retribution.
The arrest raised the ire of a prominent Sunni sheik in Anbar, who initially offered a reward of 50 million dinars (about $42,000) for information to help track down the insurgents but later accused the Shiite security forces of "abducting" the suspects in Rutbah.
"We believe this act is in revenge of the killing," said Sameer Abd Rasheed, spokesman for Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, whose family helped create the Sunni Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq militia that joined U.S. forces against al-Qaida.
Security officials initially said the women and children were forced off the bus and left at the side of the road, while the men were taken a few miles (kilometers) away and shot in a valley. On Thursday, a senior official who talked to the survivors immediately after the attack confirmed Tabarak's account, and said the men were told to get off and then walked a short distance away, where they were killed within earshot of the others.
Ali was spared, although initial reports said all male passengers were slain.
The senior official, who spoke to the AP as the tragedy unfolded late Monday and again Thursday, blamed the differing versions on conflicting accounts given by hysterical survivors.
Understandably, the trip scared Tabarak away from ever traveling though Iraq.
"I will not take this highway, never again," she said. "I will use the airport to go abroad next time."
Ali ruefully noted that the whole point of the trip was to reward his granddaughter's good grades.
"But this journey ended with tragedy," he said.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.