Baghdad // Abu Muslim likens his work to that of a surgeon, cutting out diseased parts of a body to save it from cancer. But unlike a doctor, he does not save lives, he takes them. Specifically, Abu Muslim and a small group of colleagues claim to have been killing homosexual men in Baghdad. "We see this [homosexuality] as 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," he said, in an interview in the Iraqi capital. Abu Muslim is not his real name. "These are not the habits of Iraq or our community and we must eliminate them."
In recent months, dozens of gay Iraqi men are believed to have been murdered because of their sexuality, in a purge of those considered to be morally deviant, although such killings have been taking place since 2003. Officially the police put the number in the past two months at fewer than 10 killings, although unofficially they are reported to acknowledge the number is more than double that. Some of the dead are likely to have been killed by family or tribe members who view the victim's homosexuality as a stain on their collective pride. According to Abu Muslim, however, there has also been an organised campaign to exterminate homosexuals. He did not say how many men he and his group had killed, only that they had been involved in executing "some" and had permission from key community leaders in the Shaab area, in the north-east of the capital, where he has been operating.
None of the claims can be independently verified. "We had approval from the main Iraqi tribes here to liquidate those [men] copying the ways of women," he said, explaining that he had been in the Mahdi Army but was now working independently after the militia was disbanded by the leader of the Sadr movement, Muqtada al Sadr. "Our aim is not to destabilise the security situation. Our aim is to help stabilise society."
The nationalist Mahdi Army was previously involved in fighting both US and Iraqi government troops. Militants affiliated with the group were heavily implicated in the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 and 2007. It has since been largely inactive, although dissidents and splinter groups are still thought to be carrying out attacks. "Although the Mahdi Army is today limited and in fact stalled, we cannot sit by with our arms crossed while these homosexuals flout the rules and ethics that must be followed under the Islamic religion," Abu Muslim said. "These homosexuals think that Iraq is changing and becoming a non-Muslim, liberal society but our tribal and religious customs allow us to punish them in the most severe way."
Homosexuality is illegal in Iraq and, according to a post in 2005 on the website of leading Shiite cleric Ali al Sistani, should be considered a capital offence, with gays killed in the "worst" way possible. Although the post has since been removed, the sentiments seem to be shared by others in Iraq's religious establishment. "Under Islamic rules the punishment for gays is either burning or another form of killing," said Hayder al Mousawi, the 39-year-old imam at the Hussein mosque in the Karada neighbourhood of Baghdad. "Those who break the rules of God must be cleansed from the Muslim community. There are clear rules for mankind, that men should be men and women are women."
Ideally the government should take firm action against homosexuals, the cleric said. Failing that it would be acceptable for any family or tribe to kill gays, as long as they were known to have engaged in sex. "The truth is that the homosexual brings shame on them so how can God be angry with them for killing the homosexual?" he asked. "On the contrary, in killing the homosexual they are carrying out God's will."
Some of the bodies of murdered homosexuals have been taken to al Shaab hospital. Taher Mustafa, one of the medical staff there, said he had seen three men he believed had been killed for being gay during the past three months. "We had bodies in, they were of men between 17 and 25 years old and they'd either been shot or burnt to death," he said. Dr Mustafa, 44, said young Iraqis had tasted freedom, but overestimated how much there really was.
"It's good that people are beginning to get freedoms they've been deprived of for a long time, but the youth here have to understand that they are living in a society that is governed by traditions and religious customs, and that still has militias to enforce them." He urged government security forces to work against those involved in the assassinations. "It is unacceptable that people are murdered in the streets for any reason, or for these gangs to behave as if they are the law," he said. "As the national security system gets stronger, this will stop."
In the Shaab district, a 23-year-old homosexual man agreed to an interview on condition of anonymity. "To say that homosexuality is something that has been imported into Iraq is ridiculous," he said. "There are naturally homosexuals in all countries, and there have been since time immemorial. "It is our right to live as we see fit and it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to protect us and that right, as citizens. Just because we are not practising Muslims does not mean that we can be treated as if we are not human beings."
The authorities had so far failed in their duty of care, he said, citing the disappearance in April of three of his gay friends. "We all know homosexuals are killed here," he said. "They get murdered by firing squads, but only after they've been tortured. There's a large waste dump in al Shaab and that's where the bodies are left." The man said he received an anonymous phone call a month ago from someone who threatened to kill him and "everyone who wanted to be a woman who was not a woman".
"I don't feel I have much choice but to leave Baghdad. I'm going to try to get to Lebanon. If I stay here, I will not live for long." Even among educated Iraqis there seems to be a consensus that, although militia groups should not be allowed to murder gays, something must be done about what they see as an increasing prevalence of homosexuality. "Of course I am against the killing of these people at the hands of militias," said Yousif Morjan al Siwdi, a resident of Baghdad's upmarket Mansour district. "It's time for the government to intervene. They need to stop the militias and they need to punish these homosexuals, in consultation with the religious authorities, to give them the punishment they deserve."