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Gunmen kill 22 Shiite pilgrims

Gunmen who forced their way on to a bus murdered 22 Shiite pilgrims as they travelled through western Iraq's remote desert on a trip to a holy shrine.

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

The gunmen then drove the bus a few miles off the main road between Baghdad and the Jordanian border in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province. The pilgrims, from the southern city of Karbala, 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. He said the road was protected by the Iraqi army.

Shiite pilgrims have been a favourite 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.

In Anbar in particular, many insurgents have launched attacks while posing as soldiers or other security guards.

Monday's attack comes fewer than four months before US troops - who surged into Iraq in 2007 to stem the religious killings - are due to leave the country.

An Iraqi army patrol found the deserted women weeping and wailing by the side of the road. Iraqi soldiers found the deserted bus a short distance away and loaded the women and children back on, and headed back to Karbala.

The pilgrims were on a trip to the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus, Syria. Officials gave conflicting accounts over whether they were heading to Syria or returning when the massacre took place.

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

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