A chilling Human Rights Watch report adds to a building mound of evidence that death squads are targeting gay men in Baghdad and Sadr City, Iraq—a reality that undermines claims of a democratic and cultural opening in the country since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
At minimum, dozens of men who are either openly gay or effeminate have disappeared or been found murdered in recent months. Their often-mutilated bodies suggest grisly torture, such as glue injections into the anal cavity and castration. Some reports have warned that the number dead could be in the hundreds; Human Rights Watch notes that local authorities' failure to meaningfully investigate the killings makes an exact body count impossible.
A killing campaign moved across Iraq in the early months of 2009. While the country remains a dangerous place for many if not most of its citizens, death squads started specifically singling out men whom they considered not "manly" enough, or whom they suspected of homosexual conduct. The most trivial details of appearance-the length of a man's hair, the fit of his clothes-could determine whether he lived or died.
At this writing, in July 2009, the campaign remains at its most intense in Baghdad, but it has left bloody tracks in other cities as well.
Previous mainstream news reports have suggested that the murders are "honor" killings, carried out by family members driven mad with shame as gay men take advantage of a liberalizing culture. Human Rights Watch paints a starkly different picture and supports reporting by journalist Doug Ireland, who has been writing about gay assassinations in Iraq since at least 2005.
According to Human Rights Watch's 67-page report, the Mahdi Army is attempting a popular comeback, following a retreat during the U.S. military's 2007 "surge," in part by launching a social cleansing campaign.
[The Mahdi Army has] exploited morality for opportunistic purposes; it aimed at popularity by targeting people few in Iraq would venture to defend. One "executioner" told a reporter in May that he and his fellow killers were tackling "a serious illness in the community that has been spreading rapidly among the youth after it was brought in from the outside by American soldiers. These are not the habits of Iraq or our community and we must eliminate them."
Ireland, the New York Times and USA Today have all also reported on the complicity of local police in the killings. Ireland has cited a London-based group, Iraqi LGBT, which says five gay activists were abducted by men in police uniforms in 2006 and have not since been seen. "It's disgusting," a Sadr City cop told the Times in April, while acknowledging a campaign to "clean up the streets" of beggars and men believed to be gay. "These people, we make sure they can't get together in a coffee shop or walk together in the street - we make them break up."
Amnesty International sent Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki a letter expressing "grave concern" about the killings in April. Three gay U.S. congressmembers sent a similar letter to America's ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, in April as well. An Iraq Interior Ministry spokesperson denied any state involvement in the killings when asked by USA Today.
The question now is whether the Obama administration will take this seriously. For years, people both inside and outside of government have worked to get the U.S. State Department to meaningfully address human rights abuses based on both gender and sexual orientation-just as it would those based on political expression, for instance. Hillary Clinton has made clear that gender, at least, will become a real part of the department's human rights portfolio under her watch. It remains to be seen whether the same is true for gay men-who, in any case, are clearly targeted for their presumed gender transgressions.