Authorities arrested 10 suspects Thursday accused of hijacking a busload of Shiite pilgrims this week and executing 22 men they took off the vehicle, in what Iraqi officials called a terrifying attempt by Sunni insurgents to revive sectarian violence.
Mohammed al-Moussawi, chairman of the local government council in Iraq's southern Karbala province, said he was with security forces who arrested the 10 men in the town of Rutbah near the Jordanian border. He called the suspects agents of al-Qaida, the mostly Sunni terror organization that has targeted pilgrims, government officials and security forces in hopes of creating enough chaos to bring Iraq back to the brink of civil war.
"We think al-Qaida was involved in the killing of the travelers from Karbala in the desert," al-Moussawi said. "It aimed at igniting sectarian tensions in Iraq."
The pilgrims were from the holy Shiite city of Karbala, where news of the arrests was greeted Thursday evening by cheering crowds and celebratory gunfire. Karbala is 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad.
The pilgrims were headed to the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus on Monday when gunmen in military-style uniforms stopped their bus at a fake security checkpoint. They forced 22 men off the bus and onto a remote stretch of highway in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province in western Iraq.
The gunmen then took the pilgrims a short distance away and shot them, survivors said.
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 said the men were told to get off and then walked a short distance away, where they were executed within earshot of the others.
Additionally, at least one elderly man was spared, though initial reports said all of the male passengers were killed.
The senior official, who spoke to The Associated Press as the tragedy unfolded late Monday and again on Thursday, blamed the differing versions on conflicting accounts given by hysterical survivors.
Thursday's arrests angered a prominent sheik in Anbar, where Rutbah is located. A 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, called the arrests an abduction.
"We believe this act is in revenge of the killing," Abu Risha spokesman Sameer Abd Rasheed said.
Earlier, Abu Risha had offered a 50 million dinar reward (about $42,000) for any person with information that leads to the arrest of the people behind the bus attack.
Associated Press Writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.