When militiamen from the Mahdi Army came by the compact, two-story stone home in the Doura neighborhood of Baghdad, they weren't looking for Sunnis to harass. They were hunting gays. "Bring us your son's cell phone," one ordered the middle-aged man who came to the gate. They wanted to check if his son, Nadir, had been calling foreigners--and in fact he had only hours earlier called this reporter to set up a meeting, and he had repeatedly called a gay nongovernmental organization (NGO) in London. Fortunately, Nadir was ready for them and produced a "clean" phone he keeps for just such a threat. This time they left, but vowed to come back if they found any evidence he was gay--or was talking to undesirable foreigners. Now that Iraq's sectarian war has cooled off, it's open season on homosexuals and others who infuriate religious hardliners.
Sometimes the act of reporting a story is revealing in itself--especially when it proves particularly difficult. This was the case when NEWSWEEK began looking into the problems of Iraq's homosexuals after hearing reports of secret safe houses around Baghdad where many of them were taking refuge from the militias' self-appointed morality police. After weeks of inquiries, NEWSWEEK managed to find Nadir and persuade him to arrange a visit to one of the safe houses he helps run. Instead, the Mahdi militia rousted him the night before. Established in 2004, the militia is the armed wing of the organization led by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been an implacable foe of the Maliki government. Terrified, Nadir contacted people at the London-based gay NGO that finances the safe house, and they instructed him to break off the visit.
That was only one of many problems reporting on gays in Iraq. Iraqi authorities scoffed at the subject--when not scolding a reporter for even asking about it. Some of NEWSWEEK's own local staff were wary of the story. Virtually no government officials would sit for an interview. And the United Nations human-rights office, which has a big presence in Iraq, dodged the subject like a mine field. As with a number of Muslim societies where homosexuality is officially nonexistent but widely practiced, the policy in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule was "don't ask, don't tell." But that has changed. Iraqi LGBT, the London NGO that Nadir works for, says more than 430 gay men have been murdered in Iraq since 2003. For the country's beleaguered gays, it's a friendless landscape.
Many officials say they feel that in a country at war, there are more pressing concerns than gay rights. A Ministry of Justice judge rebuked a reporter for wasting time on such an issue, noting that "crimes of sodomy" are "very rare" in society and even rarer in the courts. "Most acts of homosexual people are being done in dark corners and, with corruption and paying bribes, they will be kept there for a long time, for it is not on the top of our priorities list, which is occupied by issues of terror, kidnapping and killing," said the judge, who would not allow his name to be used discussing gays. An adviser to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said that of all the meetings he has attended, none ever touched on the rights--or even the existence--of homosexual Iraqis.
The only recourse for Iraqi gays seems to come from activists abroad. Iraqi LGBT, which was founded to defend the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Iraqis, looks after about 40 young men between the ages of 14 and 28 in several Baghdad safe houses. There they are fed, can watch TV, hang out and sleep in cramped quarters, their beds inches apart. They stay away from neighbors and rarely leave their immediate area. "I hope you can see how sensitive and very important the security issue is for the safe houses," said Ali Hili, who fled Iraq and received asylum in Britain.
Hili continues to use a pseudonym to protect himself and insulate relatives still in Iraq. He has not returned home in eight years but does visit Syria and Jordan to raise money and check on an underground railroad that helps spirit some gay men out of Iraq. He says the government tries to monitor the group's activities. Saif, one of the older residents at an Iraqi LGBT house, recalls Saddam's repressive but secular regime wistfully. "Those were the most beautiful days of our lives," he says. "The fall [of Saddam] was the worst thing to happen."
Most people seem to prefer that the subject just go away. A written request for an interview at the Legal Section of the Ministry of Human Rights was greeted with a suggestion to delete the word "gays." A sympathetic senior government official warned that a direct request to talk to a minister about gays could result in a short conversation. "I would ask about women, displaced people, children and others before you get to that," he offered. Officials at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the Human Rights ministry maintain that they do not keep statistics about gays, largely because the number is so small, "barely mentioned in Iraq" according to one of them.
Even relatively liberal people in Iraq seem to have harsh attitudes toward this subject. "These people are not welcome in the society because they are against the social, natural and religious rules," said one well-educated Iraqi who did not want to be identified more closely. A Baghdad executive said religion and tradition have made the overwhelming majority of Iraqis hostile to homosexuals. "Nobody is interested in talking about this at all," he says with a grim chuckle. A handful of gay men told NEWSWEEK harrowing stories about being cast out of their homes or savagely attacked by the storm troopers of virtue: Shia extremists among Badr Corps operatives (many of whom are now in the Iraqi Security Forces) or groups like the Mahdi Army, and sometimes both. But when told of such atrocities one Iraqi acquaintance blamed the victims, calling them "the lowest humans."
Persecution of gays will stop only if Iraqis can abandon centuries-old prejudices. They would have to acknowledge that human rights don't cover only the humans they like. Insisting that gays are just a few undesirable perverts who "should be killed"--as one Iraqi who works in journalism put it--encourages an atmosphere of impunity no matter the offense. Killing gays becomes "honorable." And raping them is OK because it isn't considered a homosexual act--only being penetrated or providing oral sex is.
Ali Hili says the government, security forces, judiciary and religious establishment are complicit in terrorizing gays. Since the late-evening visit by the militiamen, Nadir has moved to another part of Baghdad and stayed away from home. "They said, 'We will get you even if you fly to God'," he says. Changing Iraq's attitudes toward its gay minority may prove even harder than ending the war.