In January, a video began circulating on cellphones in Baghdad showing men dancing provocatively with one another at a party.
At the time, many Iraqis considered the video a sign of how much life in Iraq had normalized, an indication of new freedoms.
But activists and some gays in Baghdad say the video instead served as a trigger for a systematic campaign of persecution and killings of gays by Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias.
The Iraqi LGBT, a London-based group that supports lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders in Iraq, says it has documented 87 killings in Iraq so far this year related to anti-gay sentiments, including six in the last two weeks.
And in a report released Monday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch says the number of Iraqis killed in the last few years because they were gay or suspected of being gay could run into "hundreds." It says the government isn't doing enough to protect the rights of gays in Iraq.
"Murders are committed with impunity . . . with corpses dumped in garbage or hung as warnings on the street," the Human Rights Watch report says. "The killers invade the privacy of homes, abducting sons or brothers, leaving their mutilated bodies in the neighborhood the next day."
Among the tortures described to Human Rights Watch researchers by gays and doctors is the practice of injecting glue into men's anuses. Human Rights Watch says that according to the gays its researchers interviewed, the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, "bears primary responsibility and launched the killing in early 2009."
Human Rights Watch does not specifically attribute the recent rise in killings to the circulation of the dancing video, but gays in Baghdad said that's when they noticed a sharp change in how they were being treated.
At checkpoints, police began stopping men who looked effeminate and comparing their faces with those in the video, activists said.
Shiite clerics began preaching against gays during Friday sermons in the mosques. Lists of names of men believed to be gay were posted on the streets in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, warning that they would be killed.
"The party was the spark. The whole campaign began because of this," said a gay activist who requested that his name not be used because he feared for his safety.
A man who gave his name as Hamid told Human Rights Watch how his partner was seized at his parents' home in April by four masked, armed men dressed in black.
"He was found in the neighborhood the day after," the report quotes him as saying. "They had thrown his corpse in the garbage. His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat was ripped out."
The calmer conditions over the last two years had encouraged many gays to become more open about their orientation, activists said, and that appears to have provoked a backlash by religious extremists.
Although homosexuality was frowned upon during Saddam Hussein's rule, there were gay bars and parties, and those who were stopped by police "could pay a few dinars and it would be all right," said another gay Iraqi interviewed in Baghdad.
Many gays have now fled to neighboring countries, and Human Rights Watch urges that they should be given priority by the U.N. among Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement.
Those who remain have gone back into the shadows, too fearful even to stray far from their homes, let alone hold parties, said one of the men who referred to the backlash by religious extremists. He said he had been rejected by his family and lived in one of a number of safe houses provided for gays by the Iraqi LGBT.
"I could have left, but I love my country and I didn't," he said. "I was stupid."