BAGHDAD _ Twenty-two Shiite Muslim men were executed late Monday in Iraq's Anbar province in a reminder that the country remains a place of startling violence just three months before U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw from it completely.
The men were aboard a tour bus that was loaded with pilgrims traveling between Damascus, Syria, and Karbala, Iraq, when gunmen stopped it at a highway checkpoint 180 miles west of Ramadi, the provincial capital, in an area known as Wadi al Qathir, the Filthy Valley.
The gunmen ordered the 15 women and children aboard the bus to get off, then drove away with the men, reports indicate.
The men's bodies, including the Syrian driver's, were found 140 miles away, about 40 miles from the town of Nukhaib.
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Each had been shot in the back of the head, said an Iraqi security officials who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the incident.
The women and children were unhurt. They were found huddled by the side of the road where the bus had been hijacked.
While violence has declined in Iraq, the prospect of mass and random death is still a frequent concern as armed men conduct campaigns that many suspect are intended to spark a resurgence of violence between Sunni Muslims and Shiites. Coordinated car bombings, while not as frequent as before, take place with regularity.
Anbar, which is dominated by Sunnis, was once the primary operations area for al Qaida in Iraq. The security official said Wadi al Qathir "is known to be extremely dangerous, especially during the night."
There was no claim of responsibility Tuesday, leaving analysts to speculate on who might be behind the executions.
"If we want to answer that question, we should first ask, 'Who benefits if violence were stepped up in Iraq at this time?' " said Nabeel Muhammed, a professor of political science at Nahrain University. "And the first thing that comes to mind is that a heightened state of violence is in the best interests of the sides who want American forces to stay on in Iraq."
Under the status of forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, all American troops are to leave Iraq by Dec. 31. Iraq has agreed to open discussions with the U.S. about leaving some troops behind, but those negotiations have yet to result in an agreement.
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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