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Iraq's Anti-Gay Pogrom

Gay men across Iraq are being rounded up, tortured, and killed by the country’s militias, including the feared Mahdi Army—while the government stands by. The Daily Beast’s Parvez Sharma gets an early look at a report documenting the brutality.

08.16.09 10:31 PM ET

A mostly silent campaign of death has been moving across Iraq since early 2009. A landmark new report, to be released by Human Rights Watch in Beirut on Monday, has been made exclusively available to The Daily Beast’s Parvez Sharma. The 67-page report, which includes chilling testimony from survivors, details the murders of scores of men suspected of homosexual conduct.

The key findings include:

•The main culprits, it seems, are the Shia militias that owe allegiance to Moqtada al-Sadr, and the giant Shia slum of Sadr City in Baghdad seems to be the epicenter.

•Details are emerging of other militias being involved as well, with some—allegedly connected to al Qaeda—engaged in a kind of moral cleansing competition with the Sadrists.

•The men are targeted for apparently trivial details about their appearance, like the length of their hair and the fit or style of their clothes.

“He was very public, everybody knew he was gay. His family said his killers made a CD of how he was killed—they filmed it. They slaughtered him; they cut his throat.”

•The campaign remains at its most intense in Baghdad, but men also have been killed and tortured in Najaf, Kirkuk, and Basra.

•Murders have been committed with impunity and are admonitory in intent. Corpses have been dumped in garbage or hung as warnings on the street. The killers invade homes, abducting sons or brothers, leaving their mutilated bodies in the neighborhood the next day. They interrogate and brutalize men to extract names of other people suspected of homosexual conduct. They specialize in grotesque and appalling torture.

•Bodies have appeared by the dozens in hospitals and morgues. How many have been killed will likely never be known; the failure of authorities to investigate compounds the fear and shame of families to ensure that reliable figures are unattainable.

Many Iraqi men targeted in the killing campaign are being forced to flee the country and end up in surrounding countries where homosexuality is also criminalized. The report recommends that urgent action be taken to aid the safe resettlement in third countries of men who have managed to escape. For those who remain, fear and loathing seem to be a continuing fact of life.

A few voices from the report:

Hamid
In the same days around my partner’s murder, [militia members] killed three other men within a few streets of each other in Hurriya, next to Kadhimiya, a very religious neighborhood. They took two from their homes, including my boyfriend; they killed two more on the street. The next day, after my boyfriend was murdered, they came for me. They came into my house and they saw my mother, and one of them said: “Where’s your faggot son?” There were five men. Their faces were covered. Fortunately I wasn’t there but my mother called me after they left, in tears. From then on, I hid in a cheap hotel for two weeks. I can’t face my family—they would reject me. I can’t go home.

Haytham
A car pulled us over. About six men carrying weapons stepped out and asked for our IDs. They were dressed in black, which is usually the sign of the Mahdi Army. I demanded, “Who are you to ask for our cards?” So they opened the door and pulled us out, humiliating us, calling us “puppies,” saying, “We see you in pervert places all the time.” I tried to argue we were just friends, tried to convince them there was nothing between us. Then they pulled out a list and they started asking us about these names. Most were women’s names, the nicknames of gay men. They weren’t names that either of us knew. At that point, a U.S. [Army] patrol car came by. The men hissed at us: “Your turn is coming next.” They threw us against a wall, jumped in the car, and drove off.

An Unidentified Doctor
The same thing that used to happen to Sunnis and Shiites is now happening to gays. Till now, my friends and I know of 10 or 15 who have been killed, mostly around Sadr City. They sometimes get people in other places, and bring them there to be killed. About two months ago it started. Day after day they are more prominent. Now it is massive. At first they did it secretly; but now they stop you—they stopped me this way—and search you on the street, in front of others. A fellow doctor—a colleague, a classmate of mine, who works at al-Kindi hospital—told me over the phone that more were killed yesterday. Four were brought in with their genitals cut off. And some were brought in, not dead, with glue in their anuses.

Bilal
He was very public, everybody knew he was gay. His family said his killers made a CD of how he was killed—they filmed it. They slaughtered him; they cut his throat. His family did not want to talk about it. And now they are killing people right and left in Shaab and al-Thawra. We heard 11 men were burned alive in al-Thawra. Everyone is talking about the numbers of people killed. And they just keep rising.

For my film A Jihad for Love, in 2006 I interviewed young Iraqi homosexual men living in Baghdad. They talked furtively and longed to go back to the time of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, when “people like me” could be free. None of that footage made it into the film. I decided to stay outside Iraq. My logic was simple: The law of the jungle prevailed in Iraq. It seemed arrogant to focus on the dangers of gay life.

As a gay Muslim man, I have witnessed states policing sexuality with some horrific results, but nothing has prepared me for the horrors detailed in the new Human Rights Watch report, “They Want Us Exterminated: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq.”

One man’s testimony, from the report:

It was late one night in early April, and they came to take my partner at his parents’ home. Four armed men barged into the house, masked and wearing black. They asked for him by name; they insulted him and took him in front of his parents. All that, I heard about later from his family.

He was found in the neighborhood the day after. They had thrown his corpse in the garbage. His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat was ripped out. Their measuring rod to judge people is who they have sex with. It is not by their conscience, it is not by their conduct or their values, it is who they have sex with. The cheapest thing in Iraq is a human being, a human life. It is cheaper than an animal, than a pair of used-up batteries you buy on the street. Especially people like us.

Distinctly professorial in tone and appearance, Scott Long, author of the report, has for years documented abuses of LGBT people around the world. He documented Hosni Mubarak’s 2001 pogrom against gay men, which for all intents and purposes was an attempt by a nervous, unelected, anti-Islam despot to get brownie points with the increasingly powerful traditional Islamists at home.

Long tells me he waited so long to report on Iraq because for years Human Rights Watch had only “dubious and unsourced accounts of atrocities” but now had “firsthand information” that made it “incumbent to act.” And act they did. Long and Arabic-speaking researcher Rasha Moumneh spent 14 harrowing days in an Iraqi town collecting hundreds of hours of face-to-face testimony from 22 Iraqi men who traveled to them, primarily from Baghdad. In addition, Long and Moumneh spoke through email, phone, and instant messaging with almost 30 others, including a few in Lebanon.

As a result of their efforts, a sort of Underground Railroad is now in place, where some of the men most in danger are able to get out of the country and enter lengthy asylum proceedings with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, while they wait in supposedly “safe havens” in third countries.

Long says the government “doesn’t give a damn.” And at 67 pages, the report is a damning testimony and an indictment of a regime that has failed to protect its citizenry from cold-blooded militia killings.

The Mahdi Army, the armed and feared militias of Moqtada al-Sadr, is the primary killer, and victims also mention other shadowy militias. Unlike a great deal of the other sectarian strife in occupied Iraq, little distinction seems to be made between Shia and Sunni, and very often just an “effeminate” way of being or looking like the “third sex “ or a “puppy”—the derogatory “jarawi” in Arabic—has been enough to be marked for a violent death.

Another voice from the report:

Then people started gossiping, saying there are guys who wear sanitary pads to make their asses look bubblier—so anybody with tight jeans was a target. And then you heard that tight T-shirts meant you were a member of the third sex. Everyone killed in the first period was in Shia neighborhoods—Hurriya, al-Bada’, Sadr City. But not anymore. For instance, three days ago in my neighborhood, Hayy al-Jami’a, they found the body of a gay man who was decapitated. The common talk about him in the neighborhood had always been that he was gay. And this story spread like wildfire. It’s a Sunni district. But the way they operate now is, it seems, they go into a neighborhood, kidnap someone, take him to Sadr City, and torture and kill him. And then they dump the body in Sadr City, or back where he lived.

It is easy for the militias to score points by attacking groups that are universally disliked, like effeminate men, Long notes. Like most patriarchal cultures, Iraqis take pride in their machismo. “Muslim-ness” and everything that comes with it make it easier for men to be macho—and the opposite of macho is frowned upon and often an object of derision.

The report also backs up the argument that the pleas of older white gay activists to go and "save" Iraqi or Iranian homosexuals are of little value. The mostly Western constructs of the ever-expanding LGBT category have little or no meaning in many other languages, including Arabic. Much has been made of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged denial of Iranian homosexuality, and there is an eagerness to paint the “atrocities” against “Muslim gays” with the same broad brushstrokes in the Middle East and beyond.

The Mubarak regime’s arrest and torture of gay men in Egypt in 2001 is different from the present-day killing campaign in Iraq, Long points out, and certainly different from what is not happening in Iran.

“People are being killed in Iraq,” he says. “There was never any evidence of a serious crackdown on gays in Iran over the last two years—while [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad certainly ramped up the regime’s moral policing of dress and conduct, gays were not high on his list of targets. And while thousands of people were probably arrested in Egypt during the crackdown in 2001-04, many of them brutally tortured, it wasn’t a killing campaign.”

The bloody campaign of moral cleansing continues in Iraq. Methods of killing have included glue being injected up the anuses of men suspected of being homosexual, and the report claims that “hundreds” may have been killed.

Another voice from the report:

It was about 4 p.m. and four men came inside the shop. They lingered and when I tried to get them to leave, they pulled out guns. They had three cars—one a black Daewoo—and they put me in one and covered my eyes. It was the Mahdi Army—they are the ones who operate in the area. The place they took me to wasn’t far away: it was very close to a mosque or actually in the courtyard, because I could hear the call to prayer very clearly. When they hauled me out of the car they beat me until I fell unconscious.

Late the next day, they came to me and said, ‘We know you are gay, we know you’re farakhji’ [a derogatory term used in Iraq for men who have sex with men]. They pulled out a list of names and started reading them: You know these perverts, you know X and Y and Z. They gave the first name and the neighborhood where he lived. I knew four who were still alive. One they had already killed. They had killed my friend Waleed in February, before I was kidnapped. I asked Waleed’s brother about it later, and he told me, ‘Waleed was slaughtered in the street. Don’t ask more.’ I am sure he was killed because he was gay. He was walking with a bunch of straight friends, and he was killed, not them: He was the one they targeted. He was the first name on the list they read me. There were many more names I didn’t know. I admitted knowing those four, but I said it was only because they were customers in my shop. They interrogated me for three hours that night. They kept me blindfolded and gagged, and when they wanted me to speak, they took out the gag. They demanded I give them names of other gays. At night they got a broomstick, and they used it to rape me.”

Young men interviewed in the report translate posters they have seen put up on walls on the large slum of Sadr City, the biggest stronghold of the Mahdi Army:

“Stop the immoral and anti-Islamic acts of the pervert homosexuals [mithliyeen], and mete out the appropriate divine punishment.”

Similar signs have appeared in Najaf, the city that is home to the al-Sadr family.

Al-Arabiya, the largest news network in the region, has reported that public threats against named individuals have appeared in the district:

A previously unknown group, Ahl al-Haq [the People of Truth] has stepped up the persecution of Iraqi homosexuals [mithliyeen] after several were murdered in recent days. Sources say that “Three lists, each with the names of 10 gay men, were circulated in Sadr City for a few hours.” The lists included a message: “Lecherous ones [fajireen], we will punish you!”

In the wake of the report, what steps should the Obama administration take? Long’s answer is instructive.

“Given that one of the stereotypes of LGBT folk in Iraq is that they’re a product of Western influence, calls for the U.S. to somehow take them under its real or rhetorical wing are not likely to be very productive in terms of their safety,” he says. “Moreover, the U.S. has a terrible record of protecting its friends in Iraq—including those who actually worked for the occupation and have been left exposed to violence. No one we spoke to asked for the U.S. to help them, because they know perfectly well what its record is.”

Parvez Sharma is the director and producer of A Jihad for Love. He also writes for The Huffington Post and is a speaker on Islam and sexuality.