KARBALA, Iraq -- 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.
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."
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 south of Baghdad.
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. There's been no violent response to the bus attack from Iraq's Shiite community against Sunnis.