BAGHDAD — Samir Shaba sits in a restaurant, nervously describing gay life in Iraq. He speaks in a low voice, occasionally glancing over his shoulder.
The heavyset, clean-shaven Christian says that before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, he frequented the city's gay blogs, online chat rooms and dance clubs, where he wore flashy tight clothes, his hair long and loose to his shoulders.
After the invasion, he and other gays and lesbians were driven underground by sectarian violence and religious extremists. Shaba, 25, packed his flashy clothes away, started wearing baseball caps and baggy T-shirts and stopped visiting clubs and chat rooms. But he couldn't bear to cut his hair.
"I cannot change everything immediately," he said, fingering his black ponytail. "I suffered because I didn't cut it."
Recently, Shaba said, police commandos spotted his hair as he was riding in a taxi through a checkpoint in central Baghdad. Suspecting that he was gay, the four commandos dragged him out of the taxi by his hair, and forced him into an armored car. They demanded his cellphone, cash and sex.
When he refused, they beat him with a baton and gang-raped him. He rubbed the back of his shirt, feeling for the scars.
"They got what they wanted because I thought otherwise I would lose my life," Shaba said, and he began to weep. "They threatened me that if I told anyone, they would kill me."
Human rights groups say that Iraqi gays are increasingly targeted by militias and police. The United Nations and State Department have issued reports documenting some of the more recent killings.
A U.N. report in January cited attacks on gays by militants, as well as the existence of "religious courts, supervised by clerics, where homosexuals allegedly would be 'tried,' 'sentenced' to death and then executed."
Iraqi leaders dismiss those allegations, and Middle East experts say it's difficult to tell whether the attacks are state-sanctioned.
"Nobody's paying attention to this issue," said Ali Dabbagh, spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. "It is not the custom of the people of Iraq. Not only Iraq, but the whole region."
In October 2005, Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, on his website forbidding homosexuality and declaring that gays and lesbians should be "punished, in fact, killed."
"The people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way," the decree said.
The fatwa against gay men was removed from Sistani's website last year, but it was not revoked, said Ali Hili, an Iraqi gay-rights activist living in London who petitioned Sistani's office to remove it.
Hili compiles details of the killings of homosexuals, including photographs of victims, and posts them online. Included in his list of victims are:
* Anwar, 34, a taxi driver who ran a safe house for gays in the southern city of Najaf. Hili said Anwar was shot execution-style after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in March.
* Nouri, 29, a tailor in the southern city of Karbala who had received death threats for being gay and was beheaded in February, Hili said.
* Hazim, 21, of Baghdad also received threats, Hili said, and after police seized him at home in February, his body was found with several gunshots to the head.
Shaba said his cousin Alan, 26, who also was gay, was shot in the head one day when he went to answer the door while the two were having lunch. Although Alan might have been targeted because he was working as an interpreter with U.S. forces in the Green Zone, Shaba said he thought his cousin was killed because he was openly gay.
"There are other translators in our neighborhood, and nobody killed them," he said.
Difficult to discern
Given the pervasiveness of sectarian violence in Iraq, it's hard to tell whether such men are targeted for being gay, said filmmaker Parvez Sharma, a gay Muslim based in New York. Sharma just finished filming a documentary called "A Jihad for Love," set in Iraq and a dozen other Middle Eastern countries. It is to be released this fall.
Sharma's film concentrates on the prosecution of 52 gay men arrested in 2001 aboard a floating nightclub on the Nile; they became known as the "Cairo 52." No similar incident has been documented in Iraq, Sharma said.
"It's very difficult to tell whether there is a pogrom of any sort to kill gay men," he said, but the environment for gays in Iraq has clearly soured.
In the 1980s, Baghdad and Cairo were gay social centers, Sharma said. Many Iraqi gays settled into straight marriages and had families, but many continued to have homosexual relationships on the side.
Although President Saddam Hussein shut down many of Baghdad's gay bars in the 1990s and passed a law against sodomy in 2001, Iraqi gays and lesbians still socialized.
After the 2003 invasion, a man who gave his name as Ahmed still cruised Rubaie Street, a once popular gay thoroughfare in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Zayuna, but he was not openly gay, he said.