WAZIT, IRAQ // The eight young Iraqi men fled their neighbourhood of Sadr City together after they found their names posted on a list in the street.
Described as "emos" for their tight-fitting black clothes and alternative hairstyles, at least 15 have been stoned, beaten to death or shot dead in the past month, officials said. Reports have also said some of them had their heads smashed with concrete blocks.
"I just don't understand why they are targeting us. We didn't hurt anyone ... We basically live our life they way we want to be," said one of young men, wearing jeans and cowboy boots, who called himself "Taufeek". "We simply like the western lifestyle; the dress, music bands, vampires."
Witnesses in the conservative Shiite Muslim bastion of Sadr City in north Baghdad said a militia group calling itself the "Brigades of Anger" has posted leaflets naming 22 youths to be "punished".
Medical officials said those killed included seven who were stoned to death, five who were shot and one who was beaten to death. At least two of the victims were girls.
"Police generally take care of all these incidents," said one of the officials, who declined to be named. "They don't like medics or ambulances to take them."
In western youth culture, the term emo refers only to appearance and musical preference and carries no connotation about a person's sexual orientation. In Iraq, however, the term is widely associated with being gay, which remains taboo in the conservative Muslim country.
Taufeek denied that he or his friends are gay but, fearing for their lives, they were headed to what he called a "safe place" near the Dijla river. He said they planned to find a place where "we can have our freedom and enjoy living with true democracy".
Iraq's interior ministry said in a March 8 statement that it had not recorded any anti-gay or anti-emo killings. It said the recent murders in the capital had been for "revenge, or social, criminal, political or cultural reasons".
In a February 13 statement that remains on its website, however, it described emos as "devil-worshippers" and added that the ministry "has official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible". In the statement, police Colonel Mustaq Talib Mohammedawi, described as chief of Baghdad's "social police", said his forces would enter the capital's schools as part of its efforts to target the "phenomenon".
Frias Hatim, an Iraqi college student, said there were queues at the barber shops in Baghdad after students were warned by the militia against growing their hair. He said emos may not have widespread support but "we refuse any voices that want to limit our freedom".
A shop owner, who asked not to be identified, said the recent killings made him reconsider selling clothing, such as ski caps and black shirts decorated with skull logos, that appealed to the youth.
"Surely I don't like the way they killed those youth - they are just trying to be modern and it's [a] nice fashion touch in the Iraq community."
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse