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FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's government tried to defuse tensions on Saturday over the killing of 22 mainly Shi'ite pilgrims in the Sunni Anbar province, meeting tribal leaders and releasing men suspected of carrying out the attack.
The execution-style killings on Monday of the pilgrims, and the angry reaction and arrests that followed, threatened to rekindle sectarian hostilities in Anbar, a Sunni heartland that saw some of the worst fighting in Iraq's war.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent a high-ranked delegation led by Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, who is originally from Anbar, to meet with local chiefs before they all travelled to Kerbala province for a funeral for the victims.
"The visit of Anbar tribal leaders and a delegation to Kerbala is a step in the right direction to solving this and sends a message to those who want to ignite a crisis," said Nussaif Jasim, deputy chief of Kerbala provincial council.
Gunmen on Monday attacked two buses carrying Shi'ite pilgrims headed to Syria from Kerbala, killing the 22 men while sparing 15 women, 12 children and two elderly men.
Four of the men shot were Sunni policemen who had hitched a lift with the Shi'ite pilgrims.
Sectarian tensions still simmer in Iraq more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Thousands of people were killed at the height of sectarian fighting in 2006-2007.
Shi'ite authorities from neighbouring Kerbala province arrested eight suspects in Anbar on Thursday, infuriating local leaders.
Authorities released four suspects on Saturday due to a lack of evidence and Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq said the other four would be released soon.
"Unfortunately some mistakenly deem this to be a Sunni-Shi'ite crisis. Not at all," Maliki said at a press conference on Saturday.
Mutlaq said an investigation would be conducted into the way the men had been arrested, calling it "shameful behavior."
But families of victims at the funeral in Kerbala on Saturday demanded justice for slain relatives.
"However long it takes, we will reach the real criminals," said Hussain Kareem, whose cousin was killed in the attack.
"We know what the government did had a political purpose. This is not a secret. But we blame the people of Anbar for not protecting the pilgrims' route. We will not seek revenge, but we say they should be reprimanded."
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad and Khaled Farhan in Kerbala; Writing by Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Sophie Hares