msnbc.com news services
updated 9/12/2011 5:59:43 PM ET 2011-09-12T21:59:43

Gunmen forced their way onto a bus of traveling Shiite pilgrims Monday and shot the 22 men as they traveled 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 to get off, according to one security official who interviewed a survivor.

The gunmen then drove the bus a few miles (kilometers) 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.

"There was a big bus and a mini bus containing 30 people, including 22 men and 8 women," Major General Hadi Razij, head of Anbar police told Reuters. "They took the men and they left the women. They killed the 22 men."

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

Shiite pilgrims have been a favorite 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. 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.

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.

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

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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