BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi militias are conducting a campaign of torture and murder against men suspected of homosexual activity, a leading rights group has said, adding that government security forces may be involved.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the killings began earlier this year in the poor Sadr City district of Baghdad, once ruled by Shi'ite Muslim militias, and had since spread to many cities across Iraq.
"The killers invade homes and pick people up in the street, witnesses and survivors said, interrogating them before murdering them to extract the names of other potential victims," the rights group said in a statement.
Homosexual conduct is prohibited almost everywhere in the Middle East, but conditions have become especially dangerous for gays and lesbians in Iraq since the rise of religious militias after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein 6 1/2 years ago.
Shi'ite Muslim militias once held sway over many areas of Baghdad and Iraq's Shi'ite south, but a series of government crackdowns in the past two years has weakened their presence.
Sunni Islamist militants such as Al-Qaeda have also spread religious intolerance.
HRW said it had been told that in some attacks Iraqi security forces had "colluded and joined in the killing."
"Murder and torture are no way to enforce morality.... These killings point to the continuing and lethal failure of Iraq's postoccupation authorities to establish the rule of law and protect their citizens," HRW researcher Rasha Moumneh said.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said accusations of the involvement of its forces in gay slayings must be accompanied by evidence. It also said secrecy and stigma attached to homosexuality means that few come forward with complaints of abuse.
"Unfortunately we do not get clear complaints on this issue. They [victims' relatives] consider talking about the subject worse than the crime itself, this is the nature of our society," ministry spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said.
The silence means it is difficult to know how many people have been killed in homophobic attacks, but HRW said hundreds may have died.
There is no law against homosexuality in Iraq, but it can be punished under laws meant to protect public order and morality.
In March, the bodies of four gay men were found in Sadr City, each bearing a sign reading "pervert" in Arabic, police said.
Many gay Iraqi men have fled to other countries, such as Turkey, out of fear for their lives.
HRW released a report in Beirut on August 17 on abuses related to sexual orientation and gender in Iraq.
Its statement carried testimony from victims, including one man who said his partner of 10 years was taken from his home at night in April by four men dressed in black and wearing masks.
"He was found in the neighborhood the day after. They had thrown his corpse in the garbage. His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat was ripped out," the man said.