The plight of Iraq's already beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community is growing more appalling by the day as Islamic State forces and the lawless Shiite militias propping up the government in Baghdad fight for control of the country.
LGBT individuals living in areas ruled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, "are highly likely to be at imminent risk of death," according to a report by investigators at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and the women's rights group MADRE.
In government-controlled areas, where massacres of gays have taken place for years, militias are acting with impunity.
"No one has been held accountable for the murders, and the previous government rejected calls to even investigate violence based on actual or perceived sexual and gender non-conformity," the report says.
Hossein Alizadeh, Middle East and North Africa director at IGLHRC, told VICE News that many of the militias most closely associated with the government's fight against the Islamic State are the same ones carrying out attacks against suspected homosexuals.
"There are cases of documented killings and torture, and the government often responds by saying this is done by non-government actors for whom we are not responsible," said Alizadeh. "They basically walk away from responsibility."
'There is no worse minority to belong to in Iraq than LGBT.'
On May 15, members of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq — a powerful Iranian-backed militia also known as the "League of the Righteous" — tacked up public lists of 24 "wanted" individuals, 23 of whom it claimed had carried out homosexual acts. The remaining person had hair that was too long. In 2013, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army distributed a similar document.
A month later, on June 15, the militia killed two teenagers, beheaded them, and threw their heads in the garbage. IGHCR and MADRE spoke with Iraqi human rights activists who said that the boys were commonly thought to be gay in the community.
In July, an attack believed to be carried out by Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq on a suspected brothel in Baghdad left 34 dead. All but two of the people killed were women, gunned down as they hid in bedrooms and showers. The men, Alizadeh said, were assumed to be gay.
The Mahdi Army has also been implicated in other attacks dating back years.
"In 2008, the Mahdi Army would even kill barbers who didn't cut men's hair in the way they were supposed to," Erin Evers, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News.
A wave of so called "emo killings" in Iraq in 2012 saw the murder of dozens of gays and suspected homosexuals by militias operating in Baghdad and its environs, including Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq.
'There was an individual who was tortured to death by the militias, and their family refused to collect the body from the morgue because he had brought shame to the family.'
The LGBT community in Iraq has never enjoyed social freedoms, whether under the regime of Saddam Hussein or after the American invasion in 2003. The American occupation did coincide with the spread of internet use among Iraqis, however. Some LGBT individuals, mostly gay men, began using social networks to meet others — just as men and women, gay or straight, do elsewhere.
"One of the narratives in Iraq is homosexuality came to Iraq because of the US invasion," said Alizadeh. "Homosexuality can be associated with the Western presence in the country."
In 2010, the Iraqi government refused to take up the UN's request that it "investigate all allegations of persecution based on gender and sexual orientation."
The "lethally dangerous situation" facing homosexuals in Iraq today, according to the report, "is less likely to be a profound shift in Iraqi society's values towards gender norms, but the breakdown of law and order and the rise of the law of strongmen — within the family, tribe, and complicit state security forces."
The report also documents a case where a gay man's father left him with police, who then raped him.
"In 2009, there was an individual who was tortured to death by the militias, and their family refused to collect the body from the morgue because he had brought shame to the family," said Alizadeh.
But discrimination and even killings of perceived members of the LGBT community are often carried out by families and neighbors and covered up accordingly, leaving rights workers with little or no evidence.
Women face particular difficulty. Unable to move very far without a male companion, lesbian women — or those thought to be so — cannot easily flee their communities, let alone cross into neighboring countries where they might be lucky enough to being the process of seeking asylum outside the region.
This year alone, more than 10,000 Iraqis fleeing violence have registered with the UN's refugee agency in Jordan. The UN does not release information on the number of LGBT Iraqis seeking resettlement through its offices. But they can face abuse from local UN staff, and often choose to keep their sexual or gender identity secret — a choice that can have the effect of extending an already lengthy process of relocation.
Safe houses for members of the LGBT community exist in Iraq, but they are under constant threat of attack and their locations are kept secret. IGLHCR and MADRE could only find one women's rights organization that "offered protection to persecuted LGBT Iraqis." Resettlement in countries like the US is the goal for many, even those not in areas that have seen fighting.
"There is no worse minority to belong to in Iraq than LGBT," said Evers. "The stigma against them is so strong that even middle-of-the-road Iraqis would probably be pretty quick to say that some of these gay people should be killed. It's just completely not accepted."
Such is the general disdain for the gay community in Iraq that many foreign non-governmental organizations shy away from publicizing their discrimination, out of fear that doing so would stigmatize the work they do in the eyes of others.
"No one's going to do any sort of programming related to that because it's too sensitive," one gay expat NGO worker who assists internally displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan told VICE News. "I don't think the release of this report will change anything at all."
Even in Kurdistan, a region considered relatively more liberal and Westernized than the rest of Iraq, LGBT people are at risk of vanishing at the hands of local security forces known as the Asayish.
"If I said that a man is homosexual and he's committing lewd acts, they would simply detain him and then have him disappear," the worker said. "And the Asayish is incredibly good at making people disappear."
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