U.S. Complicit in Iraq’s Anti-Gay Pogrom?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday June 23, 2010

Media accounts suggest that the United States' invasion of Iraq not only precipitated a "crisis" level of anti-gay violence, but that through inaction and a reliance on local strong-arms, the U.S. is complicit in the ongoing pursuit, torture, and murder of gay Iraqis.

A group called Iraqi LGBT runs a number of safe houses designed to offer refuge to gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities in the country, which, under U.S. occupation, and with the end of Saddam Hussein's secular government, has become increasingly violent toward gays. Religiously motivated death squads roam the streets, according to media reports, and the police are complicit in rounding up and torturing gays, according to a June 23 op-ed article by Paul Canning in U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

Canning's article said that it was Iraqi police, in fact, who located one of the safe houses and placed everyone inside under arrest. The police "beat up and blindfolded" the safe house's six occupants, the article said, and then took them away in vans--along with computers that the police would be able to use in efforts to locate the other safe houses, as well as contacts. Those tactics are used consistently, according to reports: gays who are picked up and tortured are not only required to disclose the names of other gays, their cell phones are also mined for contacts who are then, in turn, targeted. "The house was then burned down by unknown people," the article said.

One of the six later made his way to a hospital. He had been injured and had a "throat wound," the article said. According to Iraqi LGBT, the Guardian article said, "the police action is consistent with other state attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Iraq. It has information that the other five have been transported 100 miles north to the interior ministry in Baghdad, where they'll be interrogated (ie tortured) to find out more about the group. Then, going on past experience, they'll probably be handed to militias loyal to Shi'a clerics Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr (both of whom have called for homosexuals to be put to death) and their mutilated bodies will turn up later."

The horrifying situation has been ongoing for years now. In 2008, an organizer of safe houses for gays in Iraq was mowed down by gunmen in a barbershop; last year, word leaked out that Iraqi gays were being murdered through a humiliating and agonizing means, with their executioners gluing their anuses closed and then inducing diarrhea, leading to intestinal ruptures and death.

Reports that the police--whether or not in an official capacity--were arresting and torturing gays in Iraq has led to some confusion over whether gays are being rounded up and executed under an Iraqi anti-gay law. This confusion led to reports last year that 128 gay men had been jailed and sentenced to death for being gay; according to the State Department's John Fleming, who works at the Iraqi Desk and spent a year in the war-torn country, reports of gays being arrested simply for being gay have no merit. "Homosexuality is not a crime in Iraq," Fleming, who is the public affairs officer for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told EDGE. "The individuals condemned to death in Iraq have been convicted of violent crimes, including murder, terrorism, insurgency, and kidnapping."

There have been no executions of criminals since 2007, added Fleming, who added that sexual identity is irrelevant to any charges gays involved in the crimes he specified might face. "None were convicted of the 'crime' of being homosexual," Fleming told EDGE.

"Extra-Judicial Harassment and Murder"

However, noted an April 7, 2009, story at Democratic Underground.com, "there is a great deal of extra-judicial harassment, kidnapping and murder of gays and lesbians in Iraq." Though there is no statue against homosexuality, there are evidently groups and individuals following instructions issued by religious leaders for the killing of gays.

The Guardian article recalled that last year, Congressman Jared Polis had raised an alarm about gays being hunted and killed in Iraq. The State Dept. then began an investigation; however, at the same time, the Guardian article said, the charge d'affairs for the U.S,. embassy in Baghdad announced that, "We have no evidence that security forces are in any way involved with these militias." On the other hand, however, no one had been detained or prosecuted for "killing, torturing, or detaining any LGBT individuals by year's end," according to a State Dept. report.

"Africa is the 'gay international issue du jour,' " the Guardian article said, noting international outcries resulting from anti-gay actions taken in Uganda and Malawi, "but the absence of any attention--any--to Iraq screams out for explanation. Iraqi LGBT has documented 738 killings in five years, similar numbers to those suffered by Iraq's Christian minority."

The article went on to quote Ali Hili, the exiled gay Iraqi activist, as saying that the lack of committed and vigorous investigation, political pressure, and public statement from the U.S. and Britain had emboldened the death squads. "The militia and the powers that be know they can get away with it while that silence continues," said Hili.

"Why are we standing up for some LGBT people in the rest of the world and not others?" demanded the Guardian article. "Can this pogrom carry on happening and not a finger be lifted to try and stop it?"

According to a June 18 article posted at Mideast Youth, the bodies of murdered gays are dumped in the streets with signs identifying them as homosexual. That article also cited the police raid on the safe house, identifying five victims: two gay men, two transgender people, and a lesbian.

According to Iraqi GLBT, that police action was not isolated. "Government forces have previously sized people particularly at roadblocks and handed them to militias who have then tortured them and their bodies have later been found," the group said in a press release, according to a June 22 blog posting at The Common Ills. "There is strong evidence that the government is colluding with these militia groups, by rounding up known homosexual and transgender people," the Iraqi LGBT release added.

Two Yale Law School students, Taylor Asen and Zach Strassburger, suggested in a June 18 article published at Foreign Policy that U.S. inaction was making the problem worse.

"We do not need to tolerate death or torture for LGBT Iraqis: the State Department can immediately begin allowing these persecuted Iraqis into the U.S. through a program that expedites relocating at-risk Iraqi minority groups into America," the two wrote.

"The Secretary of State should designate these gay men as 'Priority 2' refugees, under the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act passed in 2008," the authors added, explaining that such a classification "cuts months to years off the typical time of the resettlement process... and lessens time gay Iraqis stay in danger in neighboring Middle-East countries. Reducing the number of interviews these vulnerable men have to go through to get refugee status would also decrease their risk of encountering a hostile local official."

Part of the risk of fleeing to neighboring countries, the authors pointed out, is that it is equally easy for pursuers to follow gays trying to survive by leaving the country. Iraqi gays are not only subject to torture and murder at the hands of religiously motivated death squads, the article pointed out, but are also at risk from their own male family members, who will kill gay kinsmen as a way of "reclaiming" the family's "honor."

"America has a singular responsibility to protect these men," argued the authors. "Although homosexuality was by no means permitted under Saddam Hussein's regime, only after the U.S. invasion did widespread anti-gay rhetoric and violence in Iraq reach a crisis point." The two cited a BBC special report that shows that by overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the United States uncorked religious extremists who unleashed the current wave of violence against gays in Iraq. In the report, a gay man says that his boyfriend was not only murdered by anti-gay extremists, but sexually mutilated as well. "They had thrown [his] corpse in the garbage," the man recounted. "His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat had been cut out."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.