09/12/2011 07:12 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST

Gunmen kill 22 Iraqi Shia pilgrims on bus

Gunmen forced their way onto a bus carrying Shia pilgrims Monday and shot all 22 men onboard as they tried to travel through western Iraq's remote desert on a trip to a holy shrine, security officials said.

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

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 pilgrims were ordered off the bus and shot one by one, the security officials said.

"The terrorists stopped the bus at gunpoint and killed 22 men," said Maj. Gen. Abdul-Hadi Rizayig, the provincial police chief.

Favourite target for Sunni insurgents

He said the highway is protected by the Iraqi army.

Shia pilgrims have been a favourite target for Sunni insurgents who are trying to revive the sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war just a few years ago. Monday's attack comes fewer than four months before U.S. troops — who surged into Iraq in 2007 to stem the religious killings — are scheduled to leave the country.

In Anbar in particular, many insurgents have launched attacks while posing as soldiers or other security guards. And on Monday, one of the women who was forced off the bus told officials that there were four gunmen who were dressed in military uniforms and stopped the bus at a fake checkpoint.

Trip to Damascus shrine

An Iraqi army patrol found the deserted women, weeping and wailing, by the side of the highway. Iraqi soldiers found the deserted bus a short distance away and loaded the women and children back on, and headed back to Karbala. None could be reached immediately late Monday.

Two Iraqi security officials and a political leader from the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, where the pilgrims were from, confirmed the shooting details. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The pilgrims were on a trip to the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus. Officials gave conflicting accounts as to whether they were headed to Syria or returning.

Violence has dropped dramatically across Iraq, but deadly shootings and bombings still happen nearly every day.