Camels are among the animals which inhabit the Samawa desert. Photo: AFP
Gunmen have kidnapped at least 27 Qatari hunters - including members of the ruling family - in a desert area of Iraq near the Saudi border, say police and the local governor.
The attackers were driving dozens of four-wheel drive vehicles when they swept into the hunters' camp at dawn on Wednesday, officials said.
They struck near Layyah, 190km (118 miles) from regional capital, Samawa. A wide-scale search has been launched for the attackers, police say.
The Qatari foreign ministry has released a statement saying it is working with the Iraqi government to release the Qatari nationals "as soon as possible", reports Reuters news agency.
It said they had been hunting with official permission from the Iraqi interior ministry. The remote area where the incident took place is highly tribal in nature and a Shia region, reports the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.
The Shia political parties which dominate the Iraqi government are highly critical of Qatar's role in supporting Sunni rebels in Syria - so this is bound to be a serious diplomatic incident, he says.
Wealthy practitioners of the ancient sport of falconry from various Gulf states often travel to the area at this time of year.
The hunters had been escorted by Iraqi security forces but they decided not to engage a large number of gunmen, a police colonel from Samawa - the capital of Muthanna governorate - told Reuters.
"We are talking about at least 100 gunmen armed with light and medium weapons," he said. An Iraqi source told BBC Arabic that the gunmen had arrived from from the Nasiriya area.
More than 12 years after the US-led invasion and occupation, Iraq is still plagued by violent crime and militant attacks.
In September, 16 Turkish construction workers were freed a month after being kidnapped in the capital, Baghdad, apparently by Shia Muslim militants.