From this article in today's Washington Post [free subscription required] comes news that, unfortunately, isn't hard for most of us to believe: that gay men are being heavily targeted in Iraq. Many have been tortured and killed in recent months as part of a "social cleansing" campaign.
In a report to be released today, Human Rights Watch will urge the Iraqi government to do more to protect them.
Hundreds of gay men may have been killed this year in predominantly Shiite Muslim areas, the report's authors said, basing their conclusion on interviews with gay Iraqi men, hospital officials and an unnamed United Nations official in Baghdad.
"The government has done absolutely nothing to respond," said Scott Long, director of the gay rights program at Human Rights Watch. "So far there has been pretty much a stone wall."
Homosexuality was tacitly accepted during the last years of Saddam Hussein's rule, but Iraqis have long viewed it as taboo and shameful.
When violence in Iraq began ebbing in 2008 and militia and insurgent leaders lost sway in several parts of the country, social norms became less strict. Women began to shed abayas -- long black robes that cover them from head to toe -- in certain formerly conservative neighborhoods. Liquor stores began selling alcohol openly. And gay men began to congregate in cafes and other venues for parties. The advent of the Internet in Iraq after the 2003 invasion also allowed gay men to form bonds and circles of friends.
The attacks on gay men appear to have coincided with a call by religious leaders in Sadr City and other Shiite communities to curb behavior that clerics called unnatural and unhealthy.
Sadr City residents opposed to homosexuality said in interviews that the presence of gay men became overt after the Iraqi army was allowed to move into the district in the spring of 2008, asserting control over a vast area formerly controlled by Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.
"When the Iraqi army started coming here, this phenomenon started coming to our area," said Ali Abu Kara, 23, a mechanic who identified himself as a member of the Mahdi Army. "We felt very glad when those puppies were killed," he added, using a pejorative term for gay men.
Human Rights Watch said the Mahdi Army, which has been observing a cease-fire for more than a year, appears to have used the gay issue to build its image.
"It exploited morality for opportunistic purposes," the report said. "It aimed at popularity by targeting people few in Iraq would venture to defend."
Says openly gay Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.), "There is no doubt that gay Iraqi men live in a constant state of terror. That was not the case under Saddam Hussein's regime. And it's not the case in Jordan and Syria, where homosexuality is not accepted as it is in the West but people don't live in fear."
Scott Long, the Human Rights Watch official, said reports of slayings and intimidation have become more infrequent in recent months as gay communities have gone underground and scores of gay men have fled their neighborhoods.
"The militias have run out of people to kill," he said.