Confronted as we are by a daily catalogue of horror stories from Iraq, it is easy to overlook the specific nature of some of the terror campaigns being conducted against its inhabitants.

Perhaps none has been so overlooked as the systematic “sexual cleansing” operations currently being mounted by Islamist death squads, many of whom have infiltrated the Iraqi police. They relentlessly target gays and lesbians for extra-judicial execution as part of an explicit crusade of moral purification.

Victims of the Iraq conflict lie dead in the streetConsider the fate of five gay men: Amjad (27), Rafid (29), Hassan (24), Ayman (19) and Ali (21). They were members of Iraq’s clandestine gay rights movement, Iraqi LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender). For many months they had been documenting the killing of lesbians and gays, relaying details of the barbaric homophobic murders to the outside world, and providing safe houses and support to queers fleeing the death squads.

Last November they held a secret meeting in a safe house in the al-Shaab district of Baghdad. During the course of the meeting they were in communication with the founder and head of Iraqi LGBT, Ali Hili, who operates from London, UK. “Suddenly there was a lot of noise, then the connection ended,” recalls Mr Hili.

We now know that the meeting was interrupted by the arrival of Iraqi police who seized all five men at gunpoint. Nothing has been heard of them since.

Moral purification is not confined to gay men. In June last year, lslamist death squads burst into the home of two lesbians in the city of Najaf. They shot them dead, slashed their throats, and also murdered a young child the lesbians had rescued from the sex trade. The two women, both in their mid-30s, were members of Iraqi LGBT. They were providing a safe house for gay men on the run from death squads. By sheer luck, none of the men who were being given shelter in the house were at home when the assassins struck. They have now fled to Baghdad and are hiding in an Iraqi LGBT safe house in the suburbs.

These latest horrific homophobic kidnappings and murders are a snapshot of the rapidly growing power and menace of Iraq’s death squads, many of which belong to militias that are hell-bent on turning the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state. Some operate within the police and others independently. All owe their allegiance to firebrand, militant Shia clerics.

Large parts of Iraq, including many Baghdad neighbourhoods, are now under the de facto control of these fundamentalist militias and their death squad units. They enforce a harsh interpretation of Sharia law, summarily executing people for what they denounce as “crimes against Islam”.

These “crimes” include listening to western pop music, wearing shorts or jeans, drinking alcohol, selling videos, working in a barber’s shop, homosexuality, dancing, having a Sunni name, adultery and, in the case of women, not being veiled or walking in the street unaccompanied by a male relative.

Two Shia militias are doing most of the killing. They are the armed wings of major parties in the Bush- and Blair-backed Iraqi government. Madhi is the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, and Badr is the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is the leading political force in Baghdad’s governing coalition. Both militias want to establish an Iranian-style religious dictatorship – or worse.

Some of the anti-war left in Britain and the US support Muqtada al-Sadr, despite his goal of clerical fascism and his militia’s involvement in death squad killings. They hail him as a national resistance hero for fighting the US and UK occupation of Iraq; totally ignoring his militia’s sectarian murder of innocent Sunni Muslims, women and gay people.

The allied occupation of Iraq is bad enough. But victory for the Madhi or Badr militias would result in a reign of religious terror many times worse.

The execution of lesbian and gay Iraqis by Islamist death squads and militias is symptomatic of the fate that will befall all Iraqis if the fundamentalists continue to gain influence. The summary killing of queers is the canary in the mine – a warning of the barbarism to come.

Lesbian and gay Iraqis cannot seek the protection of the police. Iraq’s security forces have been infiltrated by fundamentalists, especially the Badr militia. They have huge influence in the Interior Ministry and the police, and can kill at will and with impunity. Pro-fundamentalist government ministers are turning a blind eye to the killings, and helping to protect the killers.

Likewise, the Iraqi government and police are doing nothing to rescue the hundreds of young boys who have been blackmailed into the sex industry. The sex-ring operators lure the boys into having gay sex, photograph them and then threaten to publish their photos unless they work as male prostitutes. If their gayness were publicly revealed, the boys would be executed by the Islamist militias. They are trapped.

Saddam was a bloody tyrant. But while he was in power discreet homosexuality was usually tolerated. There was certainly no danger of gay people being assassinated in the street by religious fanatics.

Since his overthrow, the violent persecution of lesbians and gays is commonplace. It is actively encouraged by Iraq’s leading Muslim cleric, the British and US-backed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In late 2005, he issued a fatwa ordering the execution of gay Iraqis. His followers in the Islamist militias are now systematically assassinating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The UK-based LGBT human rights group OutRage! is working to support our counterpart organisation in Baghdad, Iraqi LGBT. Despite the great danger involved, Iraqi LGBT has established a clandestine network of gay activists inside Iraq’s major cities, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Hilla and Basra. These courageous activists are helping gay people on the run from fundamentalist death squads, hiding them in safe houses in Baghdad and helping them escape to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The world ignores the fate of LGBT Iraqis at its peril. Their fate today is the fate of all Iraqis tomorrow. ■

Victims of the death squads

Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Khalil was accused of corrupting the community because he had sex with men. According to his Baghdad neighbour, in April 2006 four men in police uniforms arrived at Ahmed's house in a four-wheel-drive police pick-up truck. They wore the distinctive facemasks of the Badr militia. The neighbour saw the police drag Ahmed out of the house and shoot him at point-blank range.

Wissam Auda was a member of Iraq's Olympic tennis team. His dream was to play in the Wimbledon championship this year. He had been receiving death threats from religious fanatics on account of his homosexuality. On 25 May 2006, his vehicle was ambushed by fundamentalist militias in the al-Saidiya district of Baghdad. Wissam, together with his coach Hussein Ahmed Rashid and teammate Nasser Ali Hatem, were summarily executed in the street. Their crime? Wissam's homosexuality was probably what drew him to the attention of the militias, but his official crime was wearing shorts. An Iraqi National Guard checkpoint was about 100 metres from the site of the ambush, but the soldiers did nothing, according to eye-witnesses.

Nyaz is a 28-year-old dentist who lives in Baghdad. She is terrified that her lesbian relationship will be discovered, and that both she and her partner will be killed. Nyaz is being forced by the fundamentalist Mahdi militia to marry a senior Mullah with close ties to Muqtada al-Sadr. If she does not agree to the marriage, or tries to run away, Nyaz and her family will be targeted for “honour killing” by Sadr’s men.

Wathiq, aged 29, a gay architect, was kidnapped in Baghdad last March. Soon afterwards, the Badr militia sent his parents death threats, accusing them of allowing their son to lead a gay life and demanding a £11,000 ransom. The parents paid the money, thinking it would save Wathiq's life. But he was found dead a few days later, with his body mutilated and his head cut off.

The father of 23-year-old Baghdad arts student Karzan has been told by militias that his son has been sentenced to death for being gay. If his father refuses to hand over Karzan for execution, the militia has threatened to kill the family one by one. This has already happened to Bashar, 34, an actor. Because his parents refuse to reveal his hiding place, the Badr militia murdered two of his family members in retribution.

Iraqi LGBT is appealing for funds to help their work in Iraq. The UK gay rights group OutRage! is helping them. Cheques payable to “OutRage!”, and marked “For Iraqi LGBT”, can be sent to OutRage!, PO Box 17816, London SW14 8WT.

Photos of gay victims of the Iraqi death squads can be viewed online via Peter Tatchell's site.