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The Pink Army

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The first time he said it, his face was so passive I didn't register what he was saying.

"Did you get that?" Georges asked me. "They raped him."

We were sitting in the courtyard of Helem, the Lebanese gay rights organization located in a beautiful French colonial building not far from downtown Beirut. Helem's director, Georges Azzi, was helping me interview a young arrival from Baghdad.

I looked back at the slender 21-year-old with the confident voice and tried to determine what invisible force was holding him upright, helping him to speak. Three weeks of rape and torture at the hands of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, followed by a month of living as a fugitive before fleeing to Lebanon would surely destroy a person, I thought.

Then again, Iraq seems to have become a laboratory for testing the limits of human endurance, and the results are always sickeningly surprising.

"What happened to the other five gay men who were with you?" I asked.

"They killed them," he said flatly. "I paid."

Hassan (not his real name) is one of a handful of gay Iraqis who have sought refuge in Lebanon since the beginning of the year, when, according to Iraqis and human rights workers interviewed for this post, some sort of understanding was reached between the Iraqi government and the Mahdi Army to "cleanse" Iraq of homosexuals.

According to Hassan and M.M., another gay Iraqi who fled to Jordan and eventually made his way to Lebanon, Moqtada al-Sadr was given the green light from the government to attack homosexuals after video footage of a private party attended by gays, lesbians and transsexuals began circulating Iraq. Neither had attended the party or seen the footage, but several others confirmed they had heard the rumor. The BBC recently posted a number of videos depicting homosexuals and cross dressers being harassed by security forces.

The video provided a pretext for the partially disbanded and discredited Mahdi Army to reconstitute itself as morality force. Other armed groups were not far behind.

"It's creating a competition to see who can be the most righteous, the most steeped in blood," said Scott Long, the director of the LGBT Rights division of Human Rights Watch.

Since the killings were reported in the American press several weeks ago, the Iraqi government has vociferously denied any direct involvement. But according to Hassan, who was arrested at a government checkpoint, "The government and the Mahdi Army are working together to kill [homosexuals]."

Long was also skeptical of the government's claims. He stopped by Beirut on his way back from Baghdad to check on Hassan and the other Iraqis who have contacted Helem since arriving in Lebanon.

"[The Ministry of Interior] went very ostentatiously to the New York Times and said 'gays are being targeted in Sadr City," Long said. "That's for show; the reality is they are at minimum turning a blind eye."

Long, along with another Human Rights Watch researcher, Rasha Moumneh, went to Iraq to investigate reports of organized campaign against homosexuality and other forms of gender deviation.

"It's difficult to navigate sensationalist stories about gay violence In the Middle East, because they often serve political ends," said Moumneh. "I went in with some skepticism that it was a targeted campaign, but that changed very quickly."

"The intensity and scope of the violence was astonishing," Long added.

Although it is nearly impossible to determine an exact number of attacks that are motivated by sexual orientation, a doctor in Baghdad told Long it was in the hundreds. Morgues and hospitals are receiving more bodies of men who have been castrated, had their anuses glued shut or the word "pervert" carved into their skin, indicating they were not the victims of "ordinary" sectarian killing.

Hassan was targeted for his activism as much as his sexual orientation. Since 2005, he was been working with a London-based Iraqi LGBT rights organization to set up safe houses in Baghdad, which at one point housed over 40 individuals before the situation became so dangerous he shut them down. In 2006, he was detained and tortured briefly by the Mahdi Army, whose drug use has earned it the nicknamed the "pink army," a reference to the pink eyes of habitual hashish users.

Since coming to Lebanon, he has registered with the United Nations and is currently awaiting resettlement in the US or Europe. As a victim of torture, his file receives priority attention, but in the meantime, he must wait in a country where homosexuality is illegal and violence against gays not unheard of.

"They don't persecute people who translated for the Americans in Lebanon," said Long, explaining why homosexuals' cases should be treated differently from other Iraqi refugees.

"Of the countries surrounding Iraq, none are safe for homosexuals, so there is the added urgency of folks having to wait in countries where they are also at risk," he said.

Still, the Iraqis seem to be taking full advantage of the freedoms Lebanon does offer, often to the chagrin of Azzi, who, as director of Helem, has taken on the role of reluctant mother hen. Last week, they disappeared from his radar only to text him later from Acid, the notoriously decadent gay club just outside Beirut.

"We couldn't tell him beforehand-he would have worried about us," Hassan said, throwing his friend a sly smile. "Georges is our father, the leader of the revolution!"

"Yeah," Azzi answered, laughing. "We're the real 'pink army'."

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