BAGHDAD - Young people who identify themselves as so-called Emos are being brutally killed at an alarming rate in Iraq, where militias have distributed hit lists of victims and security forces say they are unable to stop crimes against the subculture that is widely perceived in Iraq as being gay.
Officials and human rights groups estimated as many as 58 Iraqis who are either gay or believed to be gay have been killed in the last six weeks alone - forecasting what experts fear is a return to the rampant hate crimes against homosexuals in 2009. This year, eyewitnesses and human rights groups say some of the victims have been bludgeoned to death by militiamen smashing in their skulls with heavy concrete blocks.
A recent list distributed by militants in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood gives the names or nicknames of 33 people and their home addresses. At the top of the paper are a drawing of two handguns flanking a Quranic greeting that extols God as merciful and compassionate.
Then follows a chilling warning.
"We warn in the strongest terms to every male and female debauchee," the Shiite militia hit list says. "If you do not stop this dirty act within four days, then the punishment of God will fall on you at the hands of Mujahideen."
All but one of the targets are men.
It's not clear why the killings have stepped up in recent months. Many Iraqis are religiously conservative and have struggled against the Western influence that has infiltrated their once-closed society in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Like many places in the Muslim world, homosexuality is extremely taboo in Iraq. Anyone perceived to be gay is considered a fair target, and the perpetrators of the violence often go free.
Emo is short for "emotional," and in the West generally identifies teens or young adults who listen to alternative music, dress in black and have radical hairstyles. Emos are not necessarily gay, but they are sometimes stereotyped as such.
In the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, a mostly-Sunni area, 35-year-old Hassan is afraid to leave his home. He plans on cutting his shoulder-length hair soon, but fears that his hormone-injected breast enhancements will be detected if he is stopped and patted down at one of the ubiquitous security checkpoints across the city.
"Today I went out of my house with a friend, but we were severely harassed - some people told us that we need the double blocks," said Hassan, referring to the concrete blocks that attackers use to beat people.
The Quran specifically forbids homosexuality, and Islamic militias in Iraq long have targeted gays in what they term "honor killings" to preserve the religious idea that families should be led by a husband and a wife.
"There is a strong wave of campaigns by clerics against homosexuals now," said Ali al-Hilli, chairman of Iraqi LGBT, a rights group based in London that provides two safe houses in Iraq for gays. He said the police do not provide protection.