The eruption of violence in February appears to have been an unintended consequence of the country’s broader peace. In the wake of the surge in American troops and the increase in strength of the Iraqi military and police forces, Iraq’s once-powerful Sunni and Shia militias have wound down their attacks against American forces and one another. Now they appear to be repositioning themselves as agents of moral enforcement, exploiting anti-gay prejudice as a means of engendering public support. Gay Iraqis seem to believe that the Mahdi Army is the main, but not only, culprit in the purges. “They’ve started a new game to make people follow them. No more whores, no more lesbians, no more gays,” a friend of Fadi’s told me. “They’re sending a message to people: ‘We are still here, and we can do anything we want.’ ”
It doesn’t help that gay people have virtually no allies in Iraqi society. Women, ethnic minorities, detainees, people who work for the Americans—just about everyone else in the country has some sort of representation. But there are no votes to be gained or power to be accrued in any Iraqi community—Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen—by supporting gay people. Gays in Iraq today are essentially a defenseless target.
When the purges began in February, the violence seemed to erupt in certain areas, specifically Sadr City and Karada. It was in Karada that a young Iraqi man named Nuri got caught up in the fury.
Nuri was riding in a taxi on a February afternoon when the cab was stopped by the commando unit of the Iraqi police at a checkpoint. To be stopped at a checkpoint was no big deal to Nuri, or any Iraqi. The police put up surprise roadblocks all over the city to catch insurgents and criminals. An officer asked for Nuri’s identification, then told him to step out of the car. The officer asked for Nuri’s cell phone, and Nuri handed it over. Then the officer threw Nuri against the car and handcuffed him.“What have I done?” Nuri asked.
The officer didn’t answer. He sniggered, put a hood over Nuri’s head, and shoved him into a police vehicle. In the car, Nuri heard the officer talking on his radio, telling someone that he had found Nuri and would put him in with “the others.”
Five other men were being held in the room Nuri was taken to. They were all gay, and several of them had friends in common. “Are we on a list or something?” they asked. “Why us?” The police took the men away and interrogated them individually. “Do you know where you are?” one of the men asked Nuri. “You’re in the Ministry of Interior. You’re in grave trouble.”
Nuri was told that $10,000 would buy his freedom. When he said he barely had any money, he was placed in a cell overnight. The following morning, his interrogators came back and asked if he was sure he didn’t have the money. Nuri said yes, he was sure. The men then handcuffed him, tied a rope around his ankles, threaded the rope through a hook in the ceiling, hoisted him upside down, and stripped him to his underwear. He passed out. When he woke up, he was still suspended in the air. In the evening, the men let Nuri down, and asked him again for the money.
The questioning continued the following day. Nuri’s captors asked for the names and contacts of other gay men, but Nuri refused to divulge any. They called him a tanta—a queen. They told him things would get much worse for him if he didn’t tell them all they wanted to hear. “Killing gays is halal,” one of the men said, meaning it was permissible under Islamic law. “We’ll get points in heaven for it.”
Over the next three weeks, nine men, working in teams of three, took turns torturing Nuri. For three days, toward the end of his captivity, the men put a bag over his head and raped him. On the first day, he estimated that fifteen men assaulted him. The second day, six men. The third day, three.
At one point, Nuri’s captors took him to the top floor of the ministry building, where, through a small window, he could see the bodies of the five men with whom he had shared a cell. They appeared to have been executed. “It’ll be your turn next,” the men told him.
One of the torturers later got Nuri alone, and told him he would let him out for $5,000. Nuri, with the man’s help, arranged for a friend in London to wire the money to a friend in Iraq, who passed it to the officer. Late one night, 25 days after Nuri had been detained, the man came to Nuri’s cell, led him out of the building, and told him to get into the trunk of his car. He was dropped by the side of a road on the outskirts of the city.