22 Iraqi Shia  pilgrims were shot in an ambush in the Sunni heartland province of Anbar [Reuters]

 

Officials say the bodies of at least 22 Shia pilgrims who were shot dead have been found in a remote desert area in western Iraq.

The bodies were discovered late on Monday night, hours after the gang of gunmen stopped the bus at a fake security checkpoint and told all the women to get off, according to one security official who interviewed a survivor.

An Iraqi army patrol found the deserted women, weeping and wailing, by the side of the highway and brought them to the provincial capital of Ramadi for help.

One of the women told officials that there were four gunmen who were dressed in military uniforms and stopped the bus at a fake checkpoint.

The gunmen then drove the bus a few kilometres off the main highway between Baghdad and the Jordanian border in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

The 22 bodies were found there, about 300km west of Baghdad.

"Some armed men stopped the bus coming from Syria Monday around 9:30pm (1830GMT), they made the 22 passengers get off the bus and killed them with automatic weapons in the desert region of Noukhair," police general Haider Rzayj told the AFP news agency.

Two Iraqi security officials and a political leader from the southern Shia city of Karbala, where the pilgrims were from, confirmed the shooting details, but an interior ministry source put the death toll at 20 men.

It was not immediately clear if the caravan was headed to the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus or coming home.

While violence has dropped in Iraq from the height of sectarian fighting in 2006-7, killings and bombings remain a daily occurrence more than eight years after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Source: Agencies