FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Gunmen killed 22 Iraqi Shi‘ite pilgrims in an ambush in the Sunni heartland province of Anbar on Monday, a police official said.
Bombings and killings remain a daily occurrence in Iraq more than eight years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion although violence has dropped from the height of sectarian fighting in 2006-7.
The pilgrims were traveling from the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala to Syria when they were shot at a checkpoint set up by the gunmen, said Major General Hadi Razij, head of Anbar police.
“There was a big bus and a mini bus containing 30 people, including 22 men and 8 women,” he told Reuters. “They took the men and they left the women. They killed the 22 men.”
A security source in Anbar police said the incident took place south of the town of Rutba, 360 km (225 miles) west of Baghdad.
The source said the remaining pilgrims, including 15 women, 12 children and two elderly men, had been put in the care of the head of Kerbala’s provincial council.
Razij said a search was being conducted for the gunmen, whom he suspected were al Qaeda insurgents.
Iraq became a battlefield for al Qaeda after the 2003 invasion, but its numbers and the territory in which it operates have shrunk since 2006-07, when Sunni tribal chiefs joined forces with the U.S. military.
The sprawling desert province of Anbar was home to the Sunni Islamist insurgency after the invasion and its main cities, Ramadi and Falluja, witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
Reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani and Rania El Gamal; Writing by Serena Chaudhry