Iraqi security officials accused al-Qaeda of carrying out an attack against a bus in Anbar province on Monday (September 12th) that left 22 civilians dead.
Mahdi al-Fekeiki, director general of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior's Intelligence Service, said the travellers were on their way to Syria Monday evening when an armed group stopped them on the road and took them to the Nukhaib desert, 510 kilometres west of Baghdad.
Al-Fekeiki told mawtani.com that the bus was carrying 22 men and 11 women and children.
"The terrorists killed the men by firing shots at them as a group, then left the women and children in the depth of the desert and drove away," he said.
Mohammad Fathi Hantoush, spokesperson for Anbar province, accused al-Qaeda of planning the attack.
"The bus was travelling on a narrow desert road, which we knew contained remnants of pockets and cells of al-Qaeda," he said. "Security forces have been making efforts to wipe them out for several days."
"The terrorists want to sow crisis between the Iraqi people in an attempt to control the country again, but they will not succeed."
Lt. Gen. Abdul Aziz al-Obaidi, head of the Anbar Operations Command, said the Iraqi army launched a major military operation with 3,000 security personnel from the army's 7th division, Anbar police forces and army aviation forces to search for the perpetrators.
Volunteers from tribes in the province are also taking part in the operation, which will include a search of houses, farms and deserted buildings in the area where the attack took place.
"This crime is horrific and cannot be described," al-Obaidi said. "Only terrorists whose hearts are devoid of any mercy would commit such a crime. Al-Qaeda is the culprit."
"We shall not cease until we detain or eliminate the terrorists. We make a promise to them that we shall retaliate by obliterating their leaders and those who provide them with shelter and sanctuary," he said.
Deputy chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council Sadoun Obaid al-Shalaan said the local government has declared a state of mourning for three days.
"The horrific terrorist attack stunned everyone," he said. "We believe the terrorist cell that carried out the strike is the same one that executed the attack at Um al-Qurra Mosque. Their objective is to create a sectarian crisis between the Iraqi people."
Al-Shalaan called on tribal sheikhs and citizens to "revolt and exact punishment on the thugs in collaboration with our security forces".
"We have had enough of al-Qaeda's crimes and its lackeys. Grief is filling the street and mourning is on everyone's face. We must punish the terrorists."
Sheikh Ahmed Abu Reesha, head of the Iraqi Sahwa Council, said that the council has allocated a reward of 50 million dinars to anyone who provides information that leads to the perpetrators of the attack.
"We instructed tribal leaders to join the Iraqi army and police in the military operation until we wipe out those filthy heads who took part in this heinous massacre," he said.