Two gay men were killed in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, and police confirmed they found the bodies of four more men, all killed during a 10-day period after an unknown Shiite militia group urged a crackdown on homosexuals in the country.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs believes as many as 30 people have been killed during the last three months because they were -- or were perceived to be -- gay.
In a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the human rights group Amnesty International called for "urgent and concerted action" to end the violence against the gay community, the group reported on its Web site.
Homosexuality is prohibited almost everywhere in the Middle East, but conditions have become especially dangerous in recent years for gays and lesbians, as religious militias have become more powerful since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But an Iraqi military source claimed the recent killings were linked to tribal violence, not militias, and his characterization of the killings hints at how deep homophobia runs in Iraqi society.
"Two young men were killed Thursday. They were sexual deviants. Their tribes killed them to restore their family honor," an Iraqi army member who did not want to give his name told ABC News.
The army source said the bodies of four gay men were unearthed in Sadr City March 25, each bearing signs reading "pervert" in Arabic on their chests. All the bodies found bore signs of torture, and were found fixed to poles when they were killed. The Iraqi army source also said two of the men found dead were wearing diapers and women's lingerie.
Two gay men were found elsewhere in Sadr City, alive but bearing the scars of severe torture. They were beaten, their chests showed signs of cigarette burns, and when police found them they were rushed to the hospital. They had been sodomized with iron bars, sources said. Other men said they had had their chests slashed and their nipples cut off.
The slum is a bastion of support for fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army militia. But an Iraqi government source told ABC News that a previously unknown Shiite group called Asaieb al-Haq (the righteous leagues) is suspected of playing a role in these killings. This group emerged after the Mahdi militia froze its activities last year. According to the source, the group includes not only Iraqis but also Iranians and Lebanese.
Many young men who might have cut their hair short and grown beards when religious gangs controlled much of Iraq now dress in a more Western style as government forces take back control.
Some of those men have now reportedly been accused of being gay by Asaieb al-Haq. In the last 10 days in Sadr City, witnesses said at least five coffee shops, which are popular with Iraqi gays, were set on fire.
According to army members who carry out patrols on the streets of Baghdad, cosmetic peddlers are selling a number of products targeted at gay men, pills and hormones to enlarge their breasts, hair removal cosmetics, and skin ointments.
A member of the Iraqi army said homosexuality was now more widespread since the fall of the Saddam regime. "It is a consequence of war in 2003 and what comes after," he said, saying that gay prostitution is rife in the country since the war ended.
Homosexual acts are punishable by up to seven years in prison in Iraq.