“A war against me, inside and outside”: Security forces, denials, and emos in Iraq

Graphic picture of murdered emo Iraq

From a video allegedly showing a murdered emo youth hanged from a bridge in Iraq

In the Iraqi media, Sawt al-Iraq and Al-Mada both reported on Friday, March 23, that “security sources” are suggesting there will be a lull in attacks on emos until the Arab League Summit in Baghdad, scheduled for this week, ends. The sources also said, though, that girls will be targeted when the attacks resume:

Informed sources warned that the coming days will see the targeting of girls under the pretext of belonging to emo, indicating that the militant groups that carry out these actions are waiting for the end of the Arab Summit to be held in Baghdad in order to resume their activities.

A security source said early yesterday that  “the militant groups reduced their operations against emo youth in this period in conjunction with the proximity of the Arab summit in Baghdad at the end of this month,” emphasizing that they are “waiting for the completion of the summit and then they will launch a new campaign.” … The source did not rule out  “the involvement of some elements of security operations in targeting emo,” expected “to begin a new campaign in the coming month of May.”

If the delay is true, it’s presumably not because the killers want to spare Iraq embarrassment during the summit, but because security measures imposed since last week’s massive bombings have the capital on lockdown, with checkpoints and traffic jams slowing traffic to a standstill.

The papers noted, though, that in official statements “security authorities played down the significance” of civil society groups’ claims that up to 100 may be dead, “denying the existence of cases of killings.”

Kamil Amin: Nothing to see here, move along

Al-Shaafaq spoke last week to Kamil Amin, director general for monitoring and protection in the Ministry of Human Rights. He reiterated the official denials.  “There are no cases of murder. This was confirmed by the Ministry of the Interior”:

“Today if an emo young man or teenager in Iraq is killed, real information will be available about his death. The situation has been confused. A story circulated in Sadr City of a young man who was accused of being a homosexual or effeminate man and kidnapped and  killed there; the work of the Ministry of Interior has proved the case was criminal.”

The last reference is presumably to Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20-year-old murdered in Sadr City on February 17. It’s not quite clear what the final comment means; but it seems Amin is trying to distinguish between killings for emo “identity” and killings for suspected homosexual conduct. Of course, as many Iraqis have pointed out, the two blend into one another as linked forms of “deviance” in the popular mind. Amin admitted, on the other hand, that names — along with death threats — had been posted on walls in Baghdad neighborhoods. “I don’t deny that thing, this talk; banners were circulating, it is easy, there are computers and printers everywhere, and you can easily write up names and existing lists. The issue came up because of ideological extremist groups.”

Graphic picture of emo death in iraq

Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi

Asked what the Human Rights Ministry was doing about the situation, Amin temporized and called on the shrinks for aid:

“I think the Council of Ministers offered assurances that personal freedoms are protected, and that there was no spread of the phenomenon of emo in Iraq, only individual cases most of which don’t go beyond a matter of fashion, which is not aggressive.  On the contrary, we found that a lot of emo have talent — for example, poetry or drawing. Some of them are superior people and they imitate emo only in terms of dress and  accessories …

“Emo is a phenomenon between the ages of 12-17 years. If it continues with the teenager after this age, it is a medical condition, and the parents should send their children to doctors and psychologists to stop it.”

Meanwhile, according to Al-Mada, the chair of the parliamentary committee on displaced persons, Abdul Khaliq Zangana, accused security forces of “arresting and intimidating young people under the pretext of the emo phenomenon”:

“Restoring security has become a pretext and an excuse for the security services to arrest young people, who are supposed  to be the future of Iraq … Some young people who had agreed to return to Iraq through the parliamentary committee have expressed sorrow that they returned to suffer from these arrests and intimidation, under the pretext of establishing security.”

This long and horrible video has been circulating inside Iraq and out; it claims to show an executed emo hanging from the railing of a bridge. I cannot vouch for what it claims to be: any number of what are, in effect, snuff videos or close to it emerge from Iraq regularly, spoor of the regularity of death there. US soldiers used to pick them up on Bluetooth (or, where their relationship to the atrocities was nearer, film them themselves) and bring or send them back home, like trophies.

Finally, what follows is a long letter I received from a gay-identified man in Baghdad. It describes both the immediate fears caused by the killing campaign, and a longer and deeper burden of anxiety. I have edited it slightly for continuity and to eliminate all identifying references.

You can’t imagine my delight when I received the message you sent me on [a gay website]. I was so happy I started crying because there are others in this world who sympathize with our suffering and the dark life we’re living here in Iraq. …  I’ve almost lost any hope for living the free and fulfilling life I aspire to and I remain confined to my home…

I live near Al-Sadr city [Baghdad’s huge Shi’ite slum] … I was born just over 30 years ago and from early in my life, I started feeling that my sexual leaning is different from that of other members of my sex. I started discovering that I’m attracted to men- yes, I started discovering that I was homosexual  (mithly al-jens) or a sexual deviant (shaz jenseyan). At this point my torment started in the conflict with my family and the society I live in on one hand, and with myself on the other. There was a conflict between me as a man and my sexual desire. I kept repressed inside me that feeling which tormented me all my life, especially at the beginning of my youth. I was supposed to be enjoying the best years of my life like others, but I was far from this. …

My problem now is that someone has photographed me having sex. That person blackmailed me and when I refused to pay him, he published the photos online. I’m in constant fear that one of my relatives or co-workers might find out about these photos, at which point they will have no mercy on me and might even kill me. I was threatened that the photos will be sent to everyone that knows me and to my family and relatives. I’m always afraid when I go down the street to buy bread, for example, or when the door bell rings. I fear that someone came to assault me. That feeling of fear dominates my life almost daily.

I’ve encountered many horrors that I was saved from almost miraculously. I was once walking on Palestine Street, when a car stopped beside me. There were three scary looking men in the car and one of them got off the car and approached me. He asked me why I had insulted his friend, because the way I was walking would attract attention in the street. The three started attacking me, so I said let’s go to the police. They were nearby. As I walked before them, they left me and went back to their car. I ran away to the side streets but they were chasing me with their car. I was running while crying and was scared to death they might catch me again. The concrete blocks  in the middle of the road saved me however, because they were not able to go through these with their car.

Concrete barriers being installed on a Baghdad street as an anti-car-bomb measure

I was assaulted and robbed of my wallet many times when I went out at night. I can’t describe the fear I feel whenever leaving my house, which makes me stop going out most of the time. One day I was at al-Zawra’a Gardens [the biggest park in central Baghdad] with a friend of mine when a policeman noticed us and then came over to arrest us. They took us to the police center where we met a[nother] police officer. The policeman who brought us said that we were “practicing sodomy” in the park, which was not true. They interrogated me and my friend separately and said they would put us in jail. We had to pay them for our release.

I was raped many times by policemen under the threat of their guns. They also threatened to surrender me to extremist groups if I refused. For me, the previous era was a golden era, because homosexuality was tolerated. I’m scared now because I expect death or beheading at any moment. Islam considers homosexuality to be a sin and the Shi’ite authority Ayatollah Al-Sistani published on his website a call to kill homosexuals. …

We as gays do not exist in this country and we have nobody to represent us. We’re vulnerable prey for whoever wants to attack us and nobody will protect us or stand by our side. We’re excluded by most people, including our own families. One day when I was at work, my sister looked into my stuff and found a CD that had a gay porn movie on it. She knew about me, especially because she used to try to listen to my conversations on the phone with friends. She told my parents about what she found and they turned on me with hate and disgust. They  began seriously thinking about forcing me to marry a female cousin to prevent any possible scandal. They pressured me and even threatened to kick me out of the house and expose me to others if I didn’t marry her.

Worse than all this is that a few days ago I received a phone call from someone who said he knew where I live and [where I work]. He said he has a film of me having sex and threatened to send it to my workplace and to my family if I didn’t agree to what he was asking. He wanted me to give him the names of my emo friends so they can target them. Now in Baghdad young people who wear black tight clothes and have pics of skulls and let their hair grow long are called emo female “wannabes.” These people are being killed by gangs called “Asa’ib” [presumably Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the “League of the Righteous,” a Shi’ite militia whom some blame for the current attacks] and by the Iraqi police. To these gangs emos and gays are two faces of one coin. Photos of their victims were published online and a lot of dead bodies were found in different areas of Baghdad.

ubiquitous mobiles in Iraq

I refused to give any names to that caller who threatened me, and I blocked his number. However, I still receive threats through other numbers that I don’t recognize. I’m scared to death that these criminals might find out about my full name and my address through my account with the phone company I receive service from. Because if you know somebody that works at the phone company, you can very easily obtain more information about any number you have. This has happened to me once when I talked with someone on the internet and we exchanged numbers. It was only a few days before that person called and told me my full name and address. He obtained that information through my my mobile number.

The Iraqi government stands with the criminals by denying the brutal murders which take place now in Iraq and which they cover up. Gays have always been the easy victims who can’t resort to anyone to protect them — because everyone in this society excludes and ostrasizes gays. As I’m writing, my tears are pouring, because I know I might die for being gay. I wish I’d never been like this, to a degree that makes me want to die and think about suicide constantly. Sometimes I meet a close friend of mine and we hug each other and cry for how miserable our lives are. I’m a human being and we have a right to live with dignity. Why do they kill and slaughter us in the most brutal ways?!  …

Iraq today is governed by people of religion who do not tolerate any dissent and kill people with no mercy. I have friends in many places who were killed in the most brutal ways and in public for being gay. The number of people killed in the latest wave has risen to more than twenty people. Until recently I had some hope that my country’s conditions might improve and that the human will be respected in Iraq. But after what’s been happening recently I’ve lost all hope and realized that my country is heading towards the unknown…. I’m scared that I might be exposed at time at work or that my family might find out about me. I’m threatened with death because of the  murders that target emos, because society here believes that gays are emos and that they’re responsible for such lifestyles. I can’t leave home without trying to hide. It’s a war against me, inside my home and outside.

(Thanks to Samir, an Egyptian activist, for translating this. Be sure to read his own remarkable blog, on secularism, sexuality, democracy, and other cogent issues, here.)

“You are killing the nation, not emos”: more from Iraq

An Iraqi holds up pictures of his friend Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, before and after his murder: Saad Shalash, Reuters

1. Rumor and responsibility

What do we know about the anti-emo campaign now?

For a start: Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, you’ll recall, sent forth a statement on February 13 calling for “eliminating” the “phenomenon” of emo youth in Iraq. This offered an official imprimatur, and arguably incitement, to vigilante violence against “deviance.”  One result of the uproar against the killings, and against the Ministry’s weird words, came about this week. The incriminating statement vanished from the police website.

You could argue this is an attempt to quiet the fears their warnings roused. Or you could say, more plausibly, they’re trying to cover their tracks. I feel mildly prescient for having imagined they’d do this; I screensaved the original proclamation. You can find it here.

Even if you take into account the impromptu comments of  government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, last week –that “there is no prosecution for belonging to the emo phenomenon  in the country … The security agencies are obliged to protect freedoms” — it doesn’t particularly sound as if the state is backing away from its anti-emo rhetoric. The Ministry of Interior’s February 29 statement, accusing emos of “destructive effects on the structure of communities,” is still up there on the Web. And this week the Ministry of Education stepped up its actions. Those bureaucrats, as I’ve noted, were responsible for a still-secret memo I’ve seen dating all the way back in August 2011: it urged prompt action “in response to the Emo phenomenon insinuating itself into our society”:

  • Deterrent legal and administrative measures should be taken against students who engage in this deviancy inside schools.
  • Cooperation and coordination are necessary between school administrations and the Interior Ministry’s social police, by reporting these cases to eliminate them and take legal measures against the perpetrators.

Wear what I tell you to: Iraqi schoolkids, from Al-Shaafaq

Last week, according to Al-Shaafaq News, the Ministry of Education followed up with a circular urging schools to impose uniforms “of gray and yellow colors” for all students, because those hues  “please the eye” according to a Quranic verse (found in Sura al-Baqara, for the curious). This should protect kids from “exotic trends.”  Killing them also helps, as we now know.

The army also got into the act — with a message exploiting Iraq’s sectarian divide. Lieutenant General Hassan Baydhani, Chief of Staff of Baghdad Operations Command, told Al-Sumariya News that “unconfirmed intelligence information” suggested that the reports of murdered emos were not just lies but a Sunni plot. Claiming that “security forces have not recorded any cases of killings of these young people,” he accused the President of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Harith al-Dhari, “in coordination with al Qaeda,” of spreading these rumors. Their motive?  “To confuse the security situation in Baghdad prior to the Arab summit.”

Harith al-Dhari

Let’s unpack this for a moment. Harith al-Dhari is one of Iraqi Sunnis’ most respected religious figures; his family has a long history of leading insurgencies against British imperialism. The post-Saddam Shi’ite governments have repeatedly accused him of collaborating with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (he’s denied it, claiming the group killed four dozen of his relatives).  At month’s end, Iraq is hosting an Arab League summit for the first time in two decades, a considerable source of national pride. Al-Dhari has urged the region’s leaders not to lend legitimacy to the increasingly repressive Shi’ite leadership now in power. The general’s slightly paranoid story suggests the government is exploiting the emo reports as a handy chisel to chip away at al-Dhari’s credibility before the summit starts.

Curiously, Dan Littauer and his unreliable website Gay Middle East have spread the exact mirror version of the same rumor, which they got from an (equally sectarian) anti-Shi’ite blogger outside Iraq. According to that side of the story, the killings are really happening, but it’s all the extreme Shi’ites fault: Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army militia, “wants to embarrass Prime Minister Al-Maliki [by] exposing him and his party’s Bard organization, as unable to protect their own people in front of the Arab League.” (He means the Badr Organization, associated with both the government and Shi’ite religious leader Ayatollah Sistani.) So the Sadrists are murdering emos to make the government look bad in front of other Arab leaders.

Are you following all this? Lord, I hope not. It’s all speculative and slightly ridiculous. It’s highly unlikely the anti-emo campaign was meant to embarrass the government: if it were, the killers would have worked much harder to get publicity from the start. (Instead, it was pretty much quiet bloodshed until the end of February.) Any militia wanting to expose the fragile security situation could do so far more spectacularly and with greater economy of means than by slaughtering some obscure kids. For instance: they could embark on the monstrous bombings in 20 towns and cities across the countries yesterday, terror attacks that killed dozens. (Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has apparently claimed responsibility.)   But the way these twin rumors, precise inverses of one another, appeal to credulous people inside and outside Iraq indicates both the matching fears that fester on either side of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide — and the tenuous state of truth in an uncertain country where hard facts are hard to attain.

 2.  Voices of opposition to murder

Grand Ayatollah al-Najafi

In Najaf on March 12, Ayatollah Bashir Najafi (one of the highest Shi’ite leaders) joined Moqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Sistani in condemning the killings. In a fatwa issued by a spokesman, he said that the “proper position” toward the young is “advice and guidance, and religious institutions and the ministries of education and culture carry full responsibility in this regard…. The position toward emo is not to murder them, but to support our youth through reformation and direction.”  There is “no permission for this spilling of blood.”

The controversy over emos continued in Iraqi media all week — though driven from the headlines today, to be sure, by the bloodbath of bombings yesterday.  And the public, political indignation over the pattern of killings has been the only hopeful thing about the whole horror.

MP Khalid Shwani spoke in Parliament, claiming that 53 emos had been killed across the country, including 13 in Baghdad, and repeated demands for an investigation. A spokesperson for the Iraqi List — a party mainly representing secular Shi’ites — accused “unnamed actors of sponsoring campaigns to  to intimidate young people. She declared that “the children of Iraq are not demons or taking directions or instructions from Israel or other countries,” and demanded that “we respect and value the youth population”:

We should look at the big dreams they hold in their heads, the  aspirations and faith and courage in their hearts, and give care and support for their future.

Youth identifying as emo smoke a pipe in the southern city of Najaf: AP

In the press, one commentator drew on Wikipedia to answer the question “What is the difference between emo and Satanists?” — finding that there was one, at least.  Even in addressing less sensational concerns, though, a certain sociological disdain continued to media approaches to the issue. As in most moral panics — such as 1950s fears in the US about comic books, or 1960s paranoias about mods and rockers in the UK — a consensus persists among liberal thinkers in Iraq that the kids in question are a Problem, and even if violence is not the answer, some kind of professional intervention is. Some emos were given space to speak in the media: but their words were filtered through a heavy layer of Concern.  One emo girl “denied that the emo phenomenon was linked to worshipping Satan,” but “members of the group confirmed a tendency to commit suicide as a result of chronic depression, which eventually leads to psychological disorders and perhaps to an inclination to abuse drugs.”

There are three voices I want to echo, though. Writing with both sympathy and sophistication, Nazmi Kamal Fares, an academic and researcher, tried in Al Rafidayn to place the “emo stigma” in a larger context — that of the “chronic Iraqi fear of freedom.”

The emo crisis today alerts us again to the need for sustained determination to raise the issue of civil liberties in Iraq, specifically the question of the relationship of the majority to the minority …  Once again, there has been made clear the inability of the majority to structurally absorb the freedom of the minority, and the failure to establish a humanitarian perspective toward the difference of others.

And in the columns of Al-Seyassah in neighboring Kuwait, an Iraqi writer issued a j’accuse: “You are killing the nation, not emos.”

Finally, with all this going on around him, a seventeen-year old emo boy opened a page on Facebook.  The defiant darkness of what he wrote on it in English has its own kind of stylized courage:

♥ Put On Your Armour ♥
♥ Ragged After Fights ♥
♥ Hold Up Yours Sword ♥
♥ Your Leaving The Light ♥
♥ Make Your Self Ready ♥
♥ For The Lords Of The Dark ♥
♥ They’ll Watch Yor Way ♥
♥ So Be Cautious,Quit And Hark ♥
♥.♥ A Thousand Years Gone By ♥.♥
♥.♥ Too Late To Wonder Why ♥.♥
♥.♥ I’m Here Alone ♥.♥
♥.♥ If In My Darkest Hour ♥.♥


He headed it:




Death and life in Iraq: Obama death cabs, vampires, Ministries, and murder

Choose your weapon: Iraqi anti-emo graphic

If you want to know what life and death are like in Iraq, here’s a story. When a colleague and I went there during the killing campaign in 2009, among those we met were three men, best friends, all calling themselves “gay” in English, though two had wives.  I’ll name them (as I did in HRW’s report of that year) Hamid, Majid, and Idris. Hamid could barely talk to us: he’d developed a severe speech impediment after his partner’s murder, three weeks before. Armed, black-masked raiders had taken the man from his parents’ home. The next day, his corpse was found thrown in the garbage, castrated, with his throat torn out.

The following night, they came for Hamid.

They entered my house and they saw my mother, and one of them said: “Where’s your faggot son?” There were five men. Their faces were covered. Fortunately I wasn’t there but my mother called me after they left, in tears.

He went into hiding. His two friends took care of him. Their homes had been raided too, but they’d escaped; the three moved from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, till they got our phone numbers through some still-serving grapevine.

We were trying to help the most endangered men we encountered get out of Iraq. We offered to assist the three — we almost begged — but they hesitated. They wanted to be sure they would stay together, wherever they were ultimately accepted as refugees. The two married men wanted to bring their wives.  I could promise all that with reasonable certainty; but I couldn’t promise that, if they filed refugee claims based on sexual orientation, their wives wouldn’t be told the grounds. They went back to Baghdad to consider it;  after a week or two we couldn’t reach them by phone anymore. It was one of the worst stories we heard in Iraq, made worse by the fact that we couldn’t do enough.

I’ve spent the last few days posting on 500 or so gay Iraqis’ personals ads on various websites, warning them about renewed killings, trying to get additional information. Idris was one who replied.

He told me that in 2009, about a week after Hamid finally returned to his family home, militias broke in and kidnapped him. His body appeared in the neighborhood next day, his head and penis chopped off.  And Majid? Last year in December, a group of Iraqi policemen beat him up on the street. His skull injured, he lay on the sidewalk for two hours before anyone helped him; some passersby insulted him as jeru (puppy, slang for “sodomite”). Emo was another, newer word they used. He died two days after. Idris managed to flee to a European country a month later. Now he is seeking asylum.

The terrible thing in Iraq is that violence is everywhere. It turns from side to side from time to time like a lighthouse beam, and casts its ghastly attention on a new target. The killing, though, seems a uniform impulse, almost indifferent to who is killed. It’s irrational and unintelligible as background noise.

Here are some things I’ve learned about the emo killings in Iraq:

1) The Ministry of Interior has blood on its hands. It’s the ubiquity of violence the makes the Ministry’s actions unforgivable. As I’ve noted here, in mid-February the Ministry issued a statement designed to whip up hatred and fear of “the phenomenon of ‘EMO’ or Satanists.” It wielded the loaded language of “eliminating” the problem. The Ministry then followed up, on February 29, by announcing a “campaign” against emos in Baghdad’s Kadhamiya neighborhood, after finding a shop that sold emo “clothing and accessories” there: “The phenomenon is contrary to the customs of Iraqi society and has destructive effects on the structure of communities.”  By that time, murders had already started. They merited no Ministry condemnation.

Instead, faced by public indignation and a demand by members of Parliament to investigate the killings, the Ministry came out with a third statement on March 8. It warned “radical and extremist groups attempting to represent themselves as guardians of morals and religious traditions” not to engage in “any conduct against people based on fashion, dress or hairstyle.” At the same time, it baldly claimed no violence was happening. “There have been no cases of murder,” it said; “the Ministry of Interior categorically denies all these lies.” Menacing the messenger, it threatened “necessary legal action against those who try to highlight this issue and blow it out of proportion.” The bullying wasn’t a bluff: Iraq’s police have dealt with dissent increasingly harshly. To press the point, a few days later Baghdad police arrested a Russia Today news team trying to film a story about slaughtered emos, confiscating their footage.

The moral panic about straying youth in Iraq certainly predated the Ministry’s brusque interventions. I have seen a memo from the Ministry of Education, apparently dated August 2011 (it was shared in confidence and I can’t show it here.).  “In response to the emo phenomenon insinuating into our schools,” it urged steps including:

  • Male and female students should be barred from leaving school grounds during the school day on flimsy excuses, as they have been seen congregating in nearby cafes, shops, and arcades to engage in these foul practices.
  • Female students should be barred from wearing immodest clothing and should comply with the approved uniform. …
  • The parents of students (in Emo cells) should be advised to cut off Internet service in their homes because it is a prime cause of this deviancy …
  • Deterrent legal and administrative measures should be taken against students who engage in this deviancy inside schools.

November 4, 2011: Moqtada al-Sadr on emos

It wasn’t until February, apparently, that the Education Ministry decided to invite the police into schools to further the work. But in the meantime, mosques and media helped fan the fears.  In November 2011, the Shi’ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr condemned emos. In Q & A form like most fatwas, his statement is worth quoting in detail:

Q: Sheikh Ali al-Sa’ady: It is obvious now that there is a new social phenomenon in our society known as the “the emo” which means being “rebellious and sensitive.” This emo thing was first known in North America years ago, among teenagers from both sexes calling themselves “devil’s friends.” Some of their weird thoughts are sadness, grief, depression, pessimism, silence, shyness, drawing tattoos, wearing black and dark outfits and tight pants …. They also like to take certain hallucinatory drugs. …. So, Sir, as you know, while this awful occupation is still in place, these kinds of groups are now appearing in Iraq. What would you say to religious figures and parents in order to prevent such social manifestations?

A: Moqtada al-Sadr: Regarding what you mentioned, Sir, in your question, they are a group of lunatics and are a disease in a Muslim society, so those who are responsible should get rid of them from the outset, in accordance with the law.

However, “in accordance with the law” is a key phrase. It helps explain why the Ministry of Interior’s irresponsible proclamations last month not only incited but legitimated violence against emos. Here were the law enforcers, urging “elimination”!

In fact, all the evidence suggests the Ministry’s interventions had a key impact. Al-Sadr’s website approvingly republished and expanded on the Ministry of Interior’s first February statement — explaining how emos were linked to drugs, prostitution, and homosexuality. And after its second February statement, the “head of the security committee of the Kadhimiya local council, Ali Al-Shammari,” told reporters that “detachments of national security and community police in the area informed us about suspicious movements of people who imitate the emo.” He added that the fiends “absorb blood from each others’ wrists.”  “Vampires in the Holy City of Baghdad!” Al-Sumariya News headlined it.

Moqtada Al-Sadr, at least, has distanced himself from the violence. In a new statement he reiterated that the phenomenon should be dealt with “by the relevant authorities,” not vigilantes, and “in accordance with the law.”   But the Ministry is still in denial.  You don’t talk about “elimination” in a country filled with death squads, and expect nothing to happen. The Ministry carries a heavy burden of guilt.

2) Who and how many? Nobody knows exactly who’s inflicting the violence. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and a breakaway Shi’ite militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) are often mentioned; but that seems to be simply because they loosely control areas of eastern Baghdad where several deaths have been reported. Militias in Iraq, in any case, are not tightly structured military entities. They’re loose agglomerations of angry young men; people come and go, and the pattern of belonging is as diffuse and random as the prospect of death.  Men affiliated with a militia might be killing without central control; different groups, Sunni as well as Shi’a, may copycat one another. (Contrary to what some bloggers write, Sunnis may well be involved. I’ve heard reports of attacks in the Adhamiya part of Baghdad, which is decidedly Sunni.) Most major Shi’ite militia forces have infiltrated the police, and officers sometimes wear their official hats, sometimes moonlight in the murder racket.

Police have apparently actively participated in the crackdown. One story repeated to me by two sources  had officers arresting several emo girls at an intermediate school in the Karrada district; no one could say whether they had been released.  However, there have also been instances of sheer mob violence. Al-Sharqiya TV said on March 7 (in a report I’ve cited here before) that a crowd brutally beat two young women in the al-Mansour neighborhood, because they wore  “fashionable clothing.” They had to be taken to a hospital.

Nor can anyone say how many have been killed. Human Rights Watch has confirmed 6 gay-identified people murdered — “confirmed” in the sense of having the deaths reported by a source with direct knowledge. By the same standard, I know of two non-gay people killed. Anonymous sources in the police gave the Associated Press numbers:

An Interior Ministry official said 58 young people have been killed across Iraq in recent weeks by unidentified gangs who accused them of being, as he described it, Emo. Sixteen were killed in Sadr City alone, security and political officials there said. Nine of the men were killed by bludgeoning, and seven were shot. No arrests have been made.

Al-Sharqiya claimed 90 dead a week ago. Rumors in Iraq run as high as 100 or 200. Those figures are probably too high. But stigma certainly dissuades the families of dead children from reporting a killing as emo- or gay-related — so that no exact figure will ever be forthcoming.

What we have are images and stories.  Several Iraqis sent me a video this week that purported to be an emo kid strung up from a bridge: slowly twisting like an broken pendulum.  YouTube removed it as “shocking and disgusting.”  Another video offers a tribute to Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20 year-old beaten to death with concrete blocks in Sadr City on February 17:

I spoke to a heterosexual man in his twenties, from a city outside Baghdad, who had started a heavy metal band with three friends some years ago. They found themselves ostracized in town for their long hair, black clothes, and angry sound. “People everywhere started calling us Satanists.”  Last week, he heard that two of his fellow band members had been murdered on the street. He’s in hiding, unable even to speak to his family, desperately afraid. “Why are they doing this to us?”

“I am facing killing threats from armed militant groups,” a 23-year-old gay man in Baghdad wrote me. “I don’t know where to go or live.”  Several people reported getting direct death threats.

I have been threatened with death on my personal mobile if I don’t cut my hair and change the way I dress and start wearing loose-fitting clothes instead of tight clothes and jeans. If I don’t do as they say I will be imprisoned or killed. I am a beautiful lady boy … I cannot do as they say. So I ask you please to help me urgently, I want to live in dignity and freedom away from threats and terror.

Then there are the rumors. This warning appeared on an Iraqi emo webpage: “About the killing of emo and metal and rap. A  Chrysler 300C (Obama) yellow-colored (taxi) was seen driving away in the Zayouna district [a wealthy, mixed Sunni-Shi’ite neighborhood] near Tariq ibn Ziyad Junior High. They are killing young innocent people.  Please beware of them and publish this alarm … you might save a boy or girl’s life.” The Chrysler 300c is one of the most popular cars in Iraq: it’s nicknamed “Obama” because Barack once drove one.

And there are the lists. The fliers spring up like fungus on the walls in mainly poor Shi’ite districts like Sadr City — though some have shown up in tony Zayouna too. They’re never signed. The same thing happened in the killings of gays in 2009: the threats are anonymous, the threatened named. “To every licentious man or woman, we are warning you: in case you don’t stop these filthy actions within four days God’s punishment will come upon your heads by the hands of those who fight for His own name. Remember that we warned you.” Here are some pictures sent me from Baghdad (the photos spread fear more widely than the posters themselves), all with more or less the same message, and slews of nicknames (Allawi the Brassiere, Mohammed the Rose):

3) What is to be done? Let’s be honest: nobody really knows. Given the degree that Iraqis see “deviance” among the young as a Western disease, spawned by military occupation and cultural invasion, I doubt that asking Western leaders to speak out against the persecution will get you anywhere. If demanding it makes you feel better, then by all means feel better. But don’t imagine your signature means the situation is on the way to being solved.

The one hopeful sign is that prominent Iraqis — religious leaders and politicians — have spoken out against the killings. Both Moqtada al-Sadr and the revered Ayatollah al-Sistani have condemned vigilantism. And Sawt al-Iraq reports that even a government spokesman sounded considerably more liberal than the Interior Ministry’s hard-line written posture, when confronted on the issue at Tigris University:

Ali al-Dabbagh said during a conference …  “there is no prosecution for belonging to the phenomenon of EMO in the country,” saying it was “personal freedom”; stressing the state’s duty to protect them as citizens exercising their freedom, he said, “The security agencies are obliged to protect freedoms.”

Good for him. Few dared be so outspoken back in 2009, when gay and “effeminate” men were being killed. The atmosphere then throughout Iraq was more inflamed, the militias more powerful, the state weaker; but the moral opprobrium upon the victims was also even stronger. Now the fact that children are dying gives parents, parliamentarians, and others both cause and courage to speak up.

For that reason, as I’ve said before, an exclusive emphasis on the gay side of the present killing campaign is unlikely to help anybody in Iraq much: not gay men, who will find the murderers’ attention to them only increasing as the skewed perspective filters through the media, and not emos, who will find stigma only intensified. The one thing that will curb the campaign is to strengthen and amplify the Iraqi voices who are already speaking out. Quiet support for their courage, by governments and by international civil society, is crucial.

If you want to offer help to emo or gay Iraqis, well, go online and do so; it’s what I’ve been trying to do myself, in my lone capacity. Visit them on manjam.com, or on the emo pages on Facebook, and try to communicate. I’m impressed, too, by how vampire, goth, and emo communities in the US and elsewhere have been collecting and spreading information on what has been going on: amazing solidarity work. There’s something else that can be done, though — pressure North American and European governments to offer accelerated acceptance to victims of the moral panic when they apply as refugees.

The US has a special category, called “P-2” (Priority 2) for refugees “in particular need of resettlement.” The category offers accelerated approval to applicants, as opposed to the cumbersome procedures the US (like other governments) usually imposes.  Only a few groups qualify for it, mostly determined by highly political critieria: they include Cubans, Iranian religious minorities, and Vietnamese.

In Iraq, the US now extends P-2 status only to applicants who can prove they have worked with the US occupation forces. This is a sensible admission that we have a moral obligation to people who sacrificed for what we billed as a liberatory project — but which put their lives in desperate danger.

For people facing a sudden, swift-moving moral panic, though, accelerated refugee acceptance may be the only way to save their lives. They need to get out of the country fast, because the threat is imminent; they can’t wait on bureaucracy. By a quirk, the 2007 US law on Iraqi refugees (one of Senator Ted Kennedy’s last generous works) gives the Secretary of State the exclusive power to designate new categories of Iraqis as eligible for P-2 (whereas with other nationalities, Congress must approve the move).

If you want to assist emo Iraqis and others who face persecution and panic because of their nonconformity, sexuality, or gender, you can urge Secretary Clinton to extend P-2 status to them — or find another solution to get them quick refugee relief.  Great Britain joined the US-led invasion; it has the same obligation to the invasion’s victims. And other European countries that pride themselves on liberal domestic policies on sexual orientation and gender should move just as fast.

One gay Iraqi wrote me, about the killing:

thanks for that but If you want the truth your People Brought that with them … so please don’t come talk about human rights because you do not know anything about it, sorry for that but is the truth

It’s not as though there wasn’t ample violence wrought on Iraqis under Saddam Hussein. But the state held the monopoly on it; you at least knew who had the guns. The US unleashed the pent-up anger of a population trained in the ways of violence by its constant infliction. In that sense, Americans and their allies brought the killing with them. No one can undo that, and we can’t pose as saviors a second time to clean up the mess of death we made; but the onus is on the guilty governments to do what they can for the victims.


CORRECTION: Human Rights Watch got the figure of six deaths (cited above) from news bureau contacts, not from family or friends of the deceased, so it’s not precisely fair to say they’ve been “confirmed” as killings due to the campaign. Wildly different figures float around depending on whom you read or talk to. I should think it’s best not to take any of them as fully informed or valid, but to concentrate on combating the atmosphere of violent paranoia about “deviance” that the Ministry has helped create.

Graphic pictures from Iraq’s anti-Emo killing campaign

Two Iraqi friends have sent me graphic photos from Iraqi media of children (at least, they look likely to have been under 18) murdered in the campaign against Emos.

One who wrote me, a young man in Baghdad, writes:

Now they’re using blocks or rocks or hammers in the killing of young people and all kinds of bad people are to be killed on the pretext that we are servants of Satan or Massachin [Christians] —  blood militias run free every day and kill the flower of youth, all of whom are innocent of the charges that tarnish their image. I don’t know what to say because I am afraid and scared and now I am mentally ill because of the fear, and they even control mobile devices now, and external and internal checkpoints [on the surrounding roads and city streets ] are collaborating with the militias for fear of the flight of young people from Iraq or from Baghdad. I appeal to the humanity in you…

Here are two photographs of a corpse, one juxtaposed with the living young man:

The correspondent who sent the following pictures says, “as you can see from the way they are dressed in their pictures, they are not Emo per se. I have been reading reports which indicate anyone who wears a stylish jeans with gel in their hair that represents the west has been identified as an Emo.” (Militias and the Iraqi media used similar markers to identify men who had sex with men back in 2009.) But he adds,  “I have also seen many pictures of young men who have shaved their head and grew their beards just that so they would not be targeted.”

One of the pictures shows the same corpse with a different image of the living boy.

On a different note, I want to add that — though no one has contacted me about this — I should be ashamed if anyone took any remarks I made here about Emos (“strange hair,” “earrings in the wrong places”), in an attempt to impersonate conservative disdain, as serious. I apologize; it’s not kind to let sarcasm, even if directed at the oppressors, spill over to the oppressed.

One thing that strikes me in reading about Emos is how much other adolescents target them for bullying in places where the subculture genuinely has flourished, like the US. (A comment on an earlier post I didn’t let through, from an IP address in Atlanta, Georgia, read: “Hahahah Gay Emos in Iraq? What the fuck is going on ?? Hahhaah emo iraqis i can’t imagine that shit lol .. we should stick dildos up their asses and fucking set them on fire”). Emo style (unlike the comparatively hard-edged cynicism of goth) emphasizes open emotional vulnerability coupled with a certain nervy fearlessness in displaying it.  You can see how, in a society with repressively stratified gender roles like Iraq or high school, this would be a comprehensive recipe for not fitting in.   Boys aren’t supposed to be vulnerable at all; girls would face reprisals from more confidently feminist girls for reveling in their weakness, and from boys for the covert, armored bravery with which they reveal it.  Equally, you can see how, for those who feel at odds with those gender straitjackets, Emo would be a way to find a community, and an Archimedean point from which to start saying “no.” No one should slight the heroism in that.

Iraq is far from the first place to crack down on Emo. In addition to all the school principals who have gone apoplectic, my colleague Brian Whitaker points out that Saudi religious police arrested 10 Emo girls in Dammam in 2010, among other grounds because they were “trying to imitate men.” And in Russia, always reliable for such things, lawmakers in 2008 contemplated a bill to restrict Emo websites and ban Emo coiffures from schools and public buildings. (What headscarves are to the laic French, hairstyles are to religious Muscovy.)

Emo culture’s “negative ideology” may encourage depression, social withdrawal and even suicide, the bill alleges – with young girls being particularly vulnerable. “Of course, there are emo teens who just listen to their music. But our actions are not directed at them but rather at those who also hurt themselves, commit suicide and promote those acts,” bill co-author Igor Ponkin explained to the Moscow Times. Though we are not certain how Ponkin intends to target people who have committed suicide, he certainly seems determined.

There was also angry rhetoric about how the state was losing control of its population: “‘The point of the bill is so that by 2020, Moscow will have someone to rule its government,’ explained Alexander Grishunin, an adviser to bill sponsor Yevgeny Yuryev, apparently without irony.” That, of course, is always part of the point of these panics. They not only reinforce the state’s power, they furnish it a raison d’etre. What better legitimates the repressive side of rule in the hypothesized public’s mind than the defense of custom and the control of deviance? And again and again — as the middle class find that kids, given a little money, will start carving out a dangerous independence — deviance among bourgeois youth turns into repression’s favored object.

The main differences in Iraq are that state urging, or state action, finds a responsive echo among the militias; and that both forces, either dispossessed of or disdaining more delicate methods, prefer the crudity of the gun. The extremity of the solution doesn’t erase the ubiquity of the impulse to repress. The Emos who are dying in Iraq stand up for all of us who, stuck with being different, chose to embrace it. I am ashamed I can do nothing to help, just salute them.

The Emo killings in Iraq: The police and their smoking gun

Seal of Iraq's Interior Ministry: The Eye of Barad-Dur

An ordinary scribbler or blogger — a Bruce Bawer, say — would probably react if something rabid and ferocious he wrote, calling down violence on the heads of offenders, were followed up in a few days by somebody murdering the offenders in question. He’d try to deny the connection, or even delete the offending words.   However deceitful, this mendacity at least shows a healthy sense of shame.   But one thing that police have in common, around the world, is an utter absence of a sense of shame.  Never apologize, never explain!  Never understand, either — I mean, never even grasp how somebody might deduce that you’ve done something bad.  The stupidity of the constabulary is, with death and taxes, one of life’s fixed points.

I’ve spent the evening writing to Iraqis, and looking for information on the Iraqi murder campaign that targets “Emos” — harmless, Gothy teenage punks. And right on the website of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior is a press releasedated February 13: a smoking gun.  Here it is in rough translation: 


Ministry of Interior waging a campaign to eliminate the “EMO”

The Director of Community Police of the Ministry of the Interior has been following up on the phenomenon of “EMO” or Satanists, and they have official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible, because the dimensions of this community have begun to move in another direction, and are now threatening danger.

It is noteworthy that the phenomenon of “EMO” derives from the word “emotional” in English. It is a widespread experience among adolescents, not just in Iraq, but in the majority of communities. They rely on appearance and movements as a means to express their feelings and embody their behavior and outlook on life.

Colonel Mushtaq Talib Mohammadawi said: “The EMO phenomenon was discovered by members of the Directorate in the capital, Baghdad. They have studied it, prepared reports and research, and gone to the Ministry of the Interior to obtain approval to follow up this case and determine how to eliminate them.”

He added that the Ministry of the Interior recognized the importance of this, and a priority was obtaining the approval of the Ministry of Education specifically for the preparation of an integrated plan that would let them enter all  he schools in the capital.

He continued that they had marked the spread of the phenomenon specifically in the schools of Baghdad, but that they faced great difficulty because of the lack of a women’s cadre in the district that would permit them to pursue the issue in detail, especially as the phenomenon had spread most among girls aged 14 to 18 years. Signs included the following:  they wear strange, tight clothes with skull-like decorations, and use school implements in the form of skulls, and put earrings in their noses and their tongues, along with other manifestations of the exotic.

“Eliminate.”  Who can say exactly what that was meant to mean, in a country brutalized to the root over the last forty years? Toward the end the statement morphs into an analysis of the schools: but the Emos aren’t a “phenomenon” merely to be left to the Ministry of Education; otherwise why would the cops want unimpeded entry to their corridors?

Militias have been killing kids suspected of being “Emos” for several weeks now, in Baghdad and apparently several other cities. The scope of the killings is unclear, with figures from 56 to 90 dead traded in the media in the last three days.  The best you can say of this press release is that it echoes with the cry of Henry II — you know, the English king who talked overloudly to himself about his Archbishop: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” His knights overheard him, and the priest turned up dead.  The statement, by the most generous interpretation, sends a perhaps-inadvertent message to the militias that the Ministry wants the problem eliminated, and is looking for help. By a more sinister reading, it says the Ministry is eager to get its own hands bloody as well. Given the thuggish brutality of Nouri al-Maliki’s administration, the second is hardly unlikely.

just you try

And who are the Emos? They’re kids addicted to weird music; they’re girls with earrings in strange places, or guys with their hair too long. In the midst of a moral panic galvanizing a demoralized and degraded country, these adolescents become the emblems of evil and the aliens to be extirpated.

I confess, four days ago I had no clue what Emos were. (Emus? Ewoks?) I’m too old and too tired to know how youth are living, or what they’re dying for. But they’ve become a New Thing in many Arab countries. Here, for instance, is an account of Emos in Damascus from just over a year ago:

With skinny bodies, oddly-combed hair, tight trousers and striped shirts, Syrian Emos are proving to the world they are not myth but indeed, a real phenomenon in Syrian society. …

Things changed drastically with advent of the third millennium; a communication boom accompanied by satellite TV and Internet invading Syrian society. All of a sudden, new ideas and trends began to infiltrate society, at every social level and in every age group—but mainly, the youth. … One of the novelties in Syrian culture, as a result of this social revolution, is the Syrian Emo. This community, revolved around young Syrians aged 14-17, brings people together regardless of their social background, who are all dedicated to a particular form of Western music.

Syrian Emos stand are introvert, like most of their peers, championing isolationism and alienation from society at large. The truth about them, nevertheless, has become indeed very blurred, attracting some because of the mysticism and scaring many away because all of what is said about their dabbling with suicide, sex and drugs. What best sums them up is, “Revolutionary teenagers with sensitive psyches.”

That pretty much sums up the anxieties: porous borders, infiltrated economies, technologically abetted invasions.  Oh, yes, and sensitivity: the myths of penetration always take on the mask of gender.  Good boys from the proper Ba’athist revolution, after all, don’t cry. I’m sure if Assad thought an anti-Emo campaign would discombobulate the opposition, or even be noticed amid his massacres, he’d be lining the strange-haired children up before his firing squads.

Or check this out, from a slightly censorious regional blog:

I don ‘t really know much about what is going on at the moment for western teenagers but all I know is what I have been seeing this year in the Middle East region. ….  I look around, and I see the streets are literally packed with kids that seriously lack style and etiquette. They walk in the Middle of the streets as if they don t care to be run over since they are fearless (EMO) …

One should not talk much and be extremely emotional, the pain felt by EMO is a pleasure and not actual pain as they tend to deep cut their arms and legs and do some major physical damage. As for the trend, the hair should at least cover 30% of the face/forehead, dark colors to be worn, tight jeans, scarves and jackets, all seasons!! And for the girls, make up should be dark with dark or multicolored nail polish.

The style is livelier than Colonel Mushtaq Talib Mohammedawi, but the sentiment runs parallel. The kids are bundles of contradictions: they’re in equal measure vulnerable to pain and “major physical damage,” and fearless.  The contradictions sum up a kind of collective vulnerability, a sense of society wandering at widdershins with itself, both defenseless and defiant.  Out of such mixed-up signifiers, violent hatred is born.

And now, in Iraq, they’re dying; kids are dying, and along with them other people who got sucked into the morass and maelstrom of hate.  I almost wish the police would cover their tracks; it’d help me forget. In case they come to their senses and try to, though, I screensaved their confessional statement. Here’s the original:

Iraq and the Emo killings

A few further notes on the Emo killings. Al Mada reports that lists specifically of youth who are believed to be Emo have been posted on walls in Sadr City as well as the Shula and Kādhimayn neighborhoods — all heavily Shi’ite districts — with threats to kill them. An anonomous official in the Sadr City municipal court told the newspaper that killers have the names of  the names of young people who are Emo stored on their cellphones, to help “liquidate” them. Oh, Sadr City. How we love you.

And here’s another clip from Al-Sharqiya News, apparently from March 8, with interviews with a couple of Emo kids:

“Gay killings,” emos, and Iraq: What’s going on

Emo in Iraq: From Shafaaq News

One thing about human rights work that human rights organizations don’t like you to talk about is the politics of place. Violations happen in violence, but mostly they are described, consumed, in peace. The flow of information is not just from North to South but from chaos to calm.  Sometimes the distance between where the abuses happen and where the information is absorbed may be only a few miles or blocks — from 125th Street to the Empire State Building, say. But emotionally it’s unbridgeable. How can these human rights reports, written generally in the style and diction of a brokerage analysis, capture the horror in which lives are broken into pieces? Wordsworth said that poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility. But this isn’t poetry.

For going on eight years there have been recurrent reports of killings based on sexual orientation in Iraq. My colleague Rasha Moumneh of Human Rights Watch and I are, I believe, the only foreign rights activists actually to have gone to Iraq specifically to investigate what was happening, in 2009, and we wrote the only full report about the murders so far, in English and in Arabic.  It’s a dire situation in which a panic about gender, masculinity, and foreign influence led to brutal, murderous targeting of men who didn’t fit traditional norms of manhood. And I can say: the experience of being there overflows what the report could encompass.

There’s a new wave of reports about “gay killings” in Iraq.  The stories published so far in the Western gay press are fragmentary, sometimes inaccurate, and naturally only capture a bit of what is going on. I’ve been in touch with Iraqi colleagues, mostly gay-identified, in the last few days, and here’s what I know so far.

There’s a huge panic happening in Iraq at the moment — again, around Western influence and gender roles. The announced target seems to be “emos.”  That’s a US-originated term for a goth-like punk subculture associated with raw emotion.   It has a few adherents in Iraq — a year ago the Los Angeles Times did a story about a 15-year-old emo in Najaf:

In the sacred Shiite city …  where women hide themselves behind dark robes and head scarves, 15-year-old Ban wears the wrong kind of black. She likes dark, ripped gloves, silver butterfly shirts and white dice on a chain. She paints her nails black and brushes on matching eye shadow. …

“It’s the duality of being simultaneously cheerful and bored with life,” she says. Like a 15-year-old anywhere, she fidgets, giggles at the mention of a favorite band and brags about her defiance before blushing at the thought of such brazenness. The Baghdad transplant proudly calls herself Najaf’s first emo. At her private school, she talked her friends into following her lead of veiled rebellion: copying the sneakers that peek out from her robe, a skull sketched on one shoe and an angel on the other.

Fundamentalists have been whipping up paranoia about the punk/goth acolytes, calling them Satanists and adulterers.  This isn’t an uncommon kind of panic in the region. In Egypt, as I documented, the crackdown on homosexual conduct around the famous Queen Boat case was preceded a couple of years before by the arrest of dozen of young heavy-metal fans in an affluent Cairo neighborhood. Their “devil-worshipping” practices were held up as the sins of a Westernized bourgeoisie. Similar local panics have happened in Lebanon and Turkey. The main difference is that in Iraq there are a lot of people with weapons who, in a devastated country, are prepared to kill.

Al-Sharqiya TV –Iran’s first private station — says that 90 men and women, mostly young, have been murdered in the last six weeks. “Who is killing our children?” asks Sawt al-Iraq (“Voice of Iraq”). Unquestionably men who have sex with men have ranked high among those swept up by the murders. The panic expands to assault anybody who doesn’t fit “normal” definitions of what’s masculine or feminine: people who look different, by virtue (or vice) of how they dress or how they walk.  And gays, like goths, are visible. But others, among them many kids of many identities, have been caught up in the killing too.

Al-Sharqiya TV reports on killings of 90 emos, March 7

A friend in Iraq writes:

[T]he first monitored attack takes place in Baghdad at 6 February 2012 that was to male victim in Sadr City district in Baghdad. The last monitored one was yesterday [March 7] to two female victims in Shaab district in Baghdad. At least 45 victims had been killed [in Baghdad] according to the info from families & medical st[a]ff in some hospitals. The total number of victims who killed & injured reach around to 90 persons until yesterday based upon local media reports.

He adds that the 45 were “mostly gay men in Baghdad only.” Iraqi media reports have described two methods of killing: beating people with concrete blocks, or pushing them off roofs of buildings.  The colleague I cite above says he knows someone who witnessed a murder by the first technique. He also says (via a “confidential witness”) that militia members attacked a hospital and killed five survivors of a previous attack.

He also writes:

Most of the monitored attacks happened in Baghdad and some southern provinces of Shia majority population (Mainly in Basrah). Most of attacks in Baghdad taken place in the eastern part of the city (Rusafa) especially in districts that considered as the stronghold of Islamic Shia Militias like  Jaish Al-Mahdi “JAM” (Mahdi Army) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq “AAH” (League of the Righteous).

The Rusafa district (by the Tigris, on the site of medieval Baghdad)  neighbors Sadr City, the vast Shi’ite slum that is a stronghold for the Mahdi Army — Moqtada al-Sadr‘s militia– and a base of operations for Asa’ib Alh al-Haq. Most people we talked to in 2009 in Iraq blamed the former group for the wave of killings of gay and gender-nonconforming men that were burgeoning then.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is a breakaway from the Mahdi Army that has operated independently since 2004.  In January, AAH announced it would lay down its arms and enter the political process. The deal was brokered by authoritarian premier Nouri al-Maliki’s associates: Maliki apparently hopes the group will provide his government a new constituency, and new muscle. Rumors abound that both the Mahdi Army and AAH have strongly infiltrated the government’s security forces. And stories are now circulating that the security forces are either joining in, or turning a blind eye to the new killings: they provide an excellent distraction from the Maliki regime’s security failures and suppression of dissent. If the AAH is spearheading some of the present killings, it’s probably their Imam al-Hadi brigade –operating in east Baghdad — that’s mainly responsible.

Emos: From shatnews.com

Neither Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq nor the Jaish al-Mahdi have claimed any responsibility for recent violence. The same e-mail says that “both of them rais[e] the same slogan of “Cleanse the Salacious & Adulterous” according to list of names of 33 LGBTQ persons that have hanging in walls and streets in the capital.” Similar posted lists of people to be killed were reported in 2009.  Still, since I haven’t yet spoken to anyone who’s seen these ones, it’s not clear to me whether they actually single out “LGBTQ” people — or other kinds of dress-and-conduct dissidents, “emos” included.

Another e-mail notes that last night (March 7) a police spokesman on state TV denied that a wave of targeted killings is taking place.  Dawlat al-Muwatin repeated this today, saying that the police claimed these were ordinary murders unrelated to emos. On March 6, though, Shafaaq News cited a source in the Ministry of Interior acknowledging that 56 emos had been killed.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shi’ite leader in Iraq, condemned the killings on March 7 through his spokesman Abdulrahim Al-Rikaby, saying the emo phenomenon needed to be addressed through dialogue.

Whoever’s behind the killings, gay people are among those being killed. But the panic encompasses other identities, and I don’t see how Westerners who stress the gay side help any of those at risk.  To the contrary: to the extent Iraqis read these accounts (and, in the Internet age they will) it may exacerbate the risk and expand the violence. The best strategy is to call on Iraq’s authorities to disarm all militias, and stop depending on extragovernmental forces to provide their peculiar version of security. They need to acknowledge the extrajudicial killings, and condemn assaults based on privatized versions of morality rather than on state (or, for that matter, shari’a) law. They must investigate the crimes and punish those found responsible. All those actions — which amount to establishing and respecting the rule of law — are a big enough stretch in Iraq. An Iraqi colleague also asks for another fact-finding mission to determine the extent of the violence, exactly where the panic came from, and who is targeting and being targeted.  I think our own reporting on Iraq in 2009 had the effect of embarrassing the Mahdi Army, which enjoyed its own aspirations to become a respectable political player. If there’s a chance that shaming could happen again, somebody should get the fact-finding underway.