August 17, 2009

VI. Past Attacks

Sporadic reports of targeted killings of men seen as "effeminate," or suspected of homosexual conduct, have reached the Western press from Iraq since 2005. Although everyone we spoke to called the latest campaign of murders vastly more organized and extensive than those earlier assaults, testimonies demonstrate that fears about morality corrupted and masculinity undermined are of long standing, and transgress sectarian lines.

Several Western reports since 2005 have pinned main or exclusive responsibility for killings of gay men in Iraq on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, supposedly operating through the Badr Organization, a shadowy militia affiliated with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly known as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq or SCIRI), and based, during most of the Saddam era, in Iran.[102] The Badr Organization has engaged in death-squad killings and other egregious human rights abuses since 2004.[103] However, Human Rights Watch found no clear evidence to support speculation that they have targeted men suspected of homosexual conduct, or that killers of "gay" men took a direct impetus from Ayatollah Sistani. While those claims cannot be definitely disproved, only one Iraqi we interviewed suggested that the Badr Organization might be a key force in the killings, or that it acted on an initiative from Sistani. He knew of no gay men who had actually been killed by Badr Organization members.  

Grand Ayatollah Sistani is an independent religious scholar widely regarded as one of the highest-ranking clerics in the Shi'a world. While he has supported attempts to unify Iraqi Shi'ites into a cohesive political movement, he has avoided direct identification with particular Shi'ite factions, including SCIRI. He has his own website,; like the cybersites of many Shi'ite imams, the forum fields questions and furnishes religiously-predicated answers about everyday life, taking up whatever issues its followers submit, on subjects alternately momentous and trivial. (Most of the answers are almost certainly drafted and posted by apprentice clerics.)

In late 2005, the site responded to a question about "What is the judgment for sodomy?" by calling it "forbidden" and punishable by "the worst kind of death."[104] The call to violence was extralegal and reprehensible. It clashed with the norms of rule of law that Sistani himself had endorsed. The statement was a fatwa, as is any answer from a qualified religious scholar on a question of Islamic law. Unlike Sistani fatwas on issues of clear public concern in Iraq, such as the form of the post-occupation government, this one stayed confined to an obscure part of his website; his organization never publicized it.  Activists based in Europe called on him to retract it, and it disappeared from the site in early 2006.  

It received little or no notice in the Iraqi press. One man told us that "I only heard about Sistani's fatwa on US websites on the Internet."[105] Its domestic impact cannot be gauged, but as a Western journalist experienced in Iraq reminded us, "The militias don't need a fatwa to kill people they don't like."[106]

Instead, most people maintained to us that the Mahdi Army had always been the main actor in the violence, turning its attention at irregular intervals since 2004 to what it saw as sexual immorality in Iraq. Intermittent violence by Sunni militias, particularly al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, accompanied this in Baghdad and elsewhere.[107] "Killings of gays in Baghdad started in 2004, and that campaign lasted for about a year," Munir remembered. "And then the militias became distracted with other issues, Shi'a and Sunni."

In May 2004, we heard about the first group of gay people who were killed. I knew three of them personally, but there were more I didn't know. We didn't think much of it: people were being killed all the time then, and we didn't think that it was a gay thing. But it became clearer to me when five of my friends were killed, all within one month, with hand grenades. And they also came after me. 
It was in a gym in Baghdad. I was with a friend named Mazen, and it was the Sadrists who came after us.
I was in the bathroom; I asked Mazen to get me a bottle of water. He went out to get it, and that was when they shot him. There were three who killed him. They were Sadrists driving red Opal cars, and wearing the dishdashi [long white robe] and slippers, with green bands on their arms. People in the gym came and said, "Hide, they are after you." I hid in the bathroom for eight hours while the police came, till the gym owner told me, "Get out."  
This was the first time I was attacked or threatened. My friends told me, be careful, they might be after nicely dressed, effeminate men. Another friend of mine was killed in a Sadr-controlled neighborhood. But two others were killed in an area that was Qaeda-controlled. At that time there was no problem between the Sadr militia and al-Qaeda. The killings of gays lasted only until the tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite militias started; then they started fighting each other.[108]

Mustafa lived in Basra, but travelled periodically to Baghdad to visit places where gay men congregated. This became more dangerous after Saddam's overthrow. "I tried going to the Sindbad Cinema," he says of one visit in 2003 or 2004, "and the first day, nothing happened, but the second day I met an old friend in the theater."

Then, all at once, some men with their faces shrouded in black stopped the movie. Someone from the audience started pointing out people-nine of us, including me and my friend. And the men in black took us out of the theater. They said, "You are sodomites [luti] and you will be taken and hanged."
You can recognize the Mahdi Army from their black outfits; these were Sadrists, all right. We were standing there waiting to die. Then someone screamed that the American forces were coming. The militia got scared and we took advantage of the situation to try to run way. They shouted after us, "Stop or we'll shoot." One of the militia threw a grenade. Shrapnel hit me in the backside; the Americans thought the Sadrists were firing at them, and they started shooting back. In the crossfire I got away.[109]

Internet use spread after Saddam's overthrow and became an important social medium for people who desired, for whatever reason, to guard their anonymity.[110] The Mahdi Army quickly found ways to infiltrate cyberspace in search of behaviors they reprobated. Samir says that in 2004, "I decided to meet this guy whom I had got to know over [Internet] chat. I went to his apartment, and I found four men there, with black clothes and beards-the signs of the Mahdi Army. They beat me up and slashed my face and hands with knives." He showed us scars: "They said, 'Next time we will kill you; this scar on your face is a warning.'"[111]

As Munir indicated, however, other militias also engaged in periodic murders. Wahid, from a Sunni area of Baghdad, says al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia killed his boyfriend in 2004, when there was a "general cleansing of people they thought were immoral. Barbers who pluck out hairs with a string could be targeted because that was haram [forbidden]. They murdered ice-sellers because there was no ice in the time of the Prophet." They liquidated him in the al-Dora neighborhood:

He was hanging out on a street corner with a bunch of friends, and they saw a group of bearded men pull up in a car. They asked for him by name. He tried to run but they surrounded and cornered him. They tried to get information from him, asking for names of gay friends. People came up and saw there was a disturbance-so they just shot him and drove away.[112]

Omar is from Samarra. In 2006, "the Sunni militias killed my boyfriend," he says-dating the attack a few months after the massive February 22 bombing of the al-Askari mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam, an assault widely attributed to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. "I had led a very secluded life, with my boyfriend."

But one day I got a threat, a piece of paper stuck on my door, saying, "Stay away from this man, or we will kill you." Then they kidnapped me: four people, masked so I couldn't see their faces. They beat me, hit me with the butt of a gun over and over, and tried to get information from me. They wanted me to confess to a sexual relationship with my boyfriend; I told them, we are just friends, there is nothing between us. They held me one day and when they realized they would get no information, they let me go.
Six days after they released me, my boyfriend was kidnapped. He was a hairdresser; we had been together for four years. I heard he had been killed from his family. His corpse was found in the street. The next day, I ran away to Baghdad.[113]

Abductions were a recurrent tool of intimidation as well as gathering information. Yehia related how Mahdi Army militiamen kidnapped him in 2005:

I could tell it was them, they dominated the whole Zafaroni area [of Baghdad] where I lived. They were dressed in black with masks over their faces, and they took me to a mosque called Husseineya Sadrayn; the Mahdi Army was sort of occupying it.  They must have heard in the neighborhood about me. They asked me: "Why are you dressed like this? Why do you have your eyebrows plucked? Why is your hair so long, why is your ear pierced?" They said, "We are Muslims, and people like you should be killed."
At the mosque, a sheikh accused me of having sex with men. I denied it. They let me go on the third day. But the militiamen went to my parents and said, "Your son is gay and is drinking alcohol." They told them I was a bad Muslim and should be punished. My parents were very shocked. I had to leave home. My father and brothers warned me if they saw me, they would kill me.[114]

Nuri, kidnapped by Ministry of Interior forces in 2009 as recounted in detail above, told of a brush with the Mahdi Army almost three years earlier:

I was walking in Karada in July 2006, when [men in] two BMWs stopped me, beat me up, and put me in the trunk. There were a whole lot of men in the cars, all armed and squashed in. It was around dusk. They took me to a husseineya [prayer hall] in Sadr City. Everybody knows that when the Mahdi Army arrest someone, they take them to Sadr City and kill them.
They took me out in front of the mosque and beat me, and then they took me in, to the sheikh of the mosque. They told him I was a sexual pervert and asked, should they kill me or just punish me? I thought the Mahdi Army do not execute people under 18. I was just 18, but I told them I was 17 when they asked.
The Sheikh told them to burn me with coals from a narghile [water pipe].  They shaved my head and burned me with coals. And then they flogged me 90 times.

He showed us scars still marking his arms from the embers.[115]

[102]See, for instance, Doug Ireland, "Iraqi Gay Murders Surge; World Finally Takes Note," Gay City News (New York), April 16, 2009, at, accessed May 2, 2009: "anti-gay death squads of the Badr Corps … [have] been responsible for a large majority of the murders of gays" in Iraq.

[103] SCIRI founded the Badr Brigade while in exile in Iran in the 1980s.  After the 2003 invasion, this group renamed itself  the Badr Organization for Reconstruction and Development. It failed to honor promises to disarm, and developed close ties to Iraq's Ministry of Interior; it is not certain, but is widely suspected, that its infiltration of the ministry survived attempts to purge government offices of militia members during the US "surge." See Edward Wong, "Leaders of Iraq Support Militias and Widen Rift," New York Times, June 9, 2005, and Council on Foreign Relations, Iraq: Militia Groups,at, accessed April 10, 2009.

[104] The text has disappeared from Sistani's website, but is on file with Human Rights Watch.

[105]Human Rights Watch interview with Omar (not his real name), Iraq, April 25, 2009.

[106] Human  Rights Watch interview with Nir Rosen, Beirut, Lebanon, April 29, 2009.

[107]Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a loose grouping of Sunni insurgent forces (originally founded as the Group for Monotheism and Struggle by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) that fought its way to prominence attacking occupation forces in 2004. 

[108] Human Rights Watch interview with Munir (not his real name), Iraq, April 20, 2009. The Mahdi Army cooperated, at least in a limited way, with al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia along with other Sunni militias early in the resistance to the occupation, in 2004. These alliances broke down by 2005, as sectarian civil war erupted across Iraq.

[109] Human Rights Watch interview with Mustafa (not his real name), Beirut, Lebanon, July 10, 2009. The famous Sindbad Cinema in Saadoun Street, later destroyed, was known for showing Western films which Islamists considered "pornographic."  A grenade attack on it in May 2003 was reported in the Western media: see Philip Sherwell, "Baghdad's Cinemas and Shops Attacked by Islamic 'Enforcers,'" Telegraph, June 1, 2003,, accessed June 10, 2009.

[110]In postwar Iraq as in many other countries around the world, chatrooms and personals websites for gay-identified men combined the opportunity for social outreach with the apparent promise of security.  One told us:

The Internet is very important for gays in Iraq because it seems to offer safety. Before that, you would have to meet very discreetly in public places: you'd see a guy and go across to talk to him, and you didn't know if he was gay or straight or pretending to  be gay, if he would beat you up or rob you. With the Internet, you can sort of check out people before you reach out to them or give them personal information.

 Human Rights Watch interview with Hanif (not his real name), Iraq, April 25, 2009.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with Samir (not his real name), Iraq, April 24, 2009.   Bilal says that "Two years ago, one of my friends was kidnapped through Yahoo [Messenger]. He was chatting with someone who said, 'I want to meet you': when he went to the meeting place, there were two men waiting and they kidnapped him. They stole his phone with all the numbers on it, blindfolded him and beat him, kicked him, pulled out his fingernails.   This was the Mahdi Army-they told him so; they said, 'We clear the community of people like you.'  They wanted a ransom from his family; they ask each time for twenty or thirty thousand US dollars. But they told him they would kill him the next day anyway.  They were on the first floor, so he threw himself out the window and escaped." Human Rights Watch interview with Bilal (not his real name), Iraq, April 20, 2009.

[112]Human Rights Watch interview with Wahid (not his real name), Iraq, April 23, 2009.

[113]Human Rights Watch interview with Omar (not his real name), Iraq, April 25, 2009.

[114] Human Rights Watch interview with Yehia (not his real name), Beirut, Lebanon, July 10, 2009.

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with Nuri (not his real name), Beirut, Lebanon, April 27, 2009.