BAGHDAD (AP) - Advocates demanded a government investigation Friday into the recent "Emo" killings of young Iraqis, many of whom are suspected of being gay, in what one lawmaker called a backlash by Islamic extremists against Western culture creeping into the country.
As many as 58 so-called Emos - identified by their Western clothing and hairstyles - have been killed in Iraq over the last two months, according to local officials and security forces in Baghdad. They confirmed the deaths on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
But most, if not all of the deaths have gone unsolved, and Iraq's police forces so far have not conducted a widespread inquiry into the killings targeting a subculture that many Iraqis believe is rooted in homosexuality.
"Our youth are feeling really horrible," independent Shiite lawmaker Safia al-Souhail said in an interview Friday. "The security forces need to acknowledge this is happening to be able to carry out an investigation."
Separately, human rights watchdogs Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said the Emo attacks "have created an atmosphere of terror among those who see themselves as potential victims."
Al-Souhail said the campaign against Emos appears to be the work of individuals within security forces who want to curb democracy in Iraq and turn the country into an Islamic state. She did not mention any specific militias or political parties, and said she believed the campaign was not endorsed by the overall government, which is led by Shiite Muslims.
In a March 12 statement, Iraq's Interior Ministry said it had no evidence that Emos are being targeted, claiming that "security agencies did not record any case of killing of these young people." The ministry, which oversees all of Iraq's police forces, accused al-Qaida of conspiring with the media in a campaign of fear aimed at canceling the upcoming Arab League summit in Baghdad. The annual League meeting was shelved last year in part because of fears about Iraq's unstable security.
A month earlier, the Interior Ministry issued a Feb. 13 statement on "the phenomenon of Emos," which it described as Satan worshippers. The statement said police "have official approval to eliminate it as soon as possible, because the effects of it on society ...is now threatening a danger."
Emo is short for "emotional" and in the West generally identifies teens or young adults who listen to alternative music, dress in black, and have radical hairstyles. Emos are not necessarily gay, but they are sometimes stereotyped as such.
To Iraqis, "Emo" is widely synonymous with "gay." This year, eyewitnesses and human rights groups say some of the victims have been bludgeoned to death by militiamen smashing in their skulls with heavy cement blocks.
A hit-list of 33 targets, identified by their names or nicknames and their home addresses, recently was distributed by militants in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood. It warned: "If you do not stop this dirty act within four days, then the punishment of God will fall on you at the hands of Mujahideen."
Young people across Baghdad have rushed to cut their hair, and many reported threats in an era some describe as "after blocks" - as opposed to "before blocks," when they wore their Western styles without fear of being bludgeoned with the cement blocks.
Several clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite, have forbidden the killings of Emos, calling it a terrorist act. But many insist that the Emo subculture remains a threat. On Friday, Shiite cleric Hadi al-Donyanawi told thousands of worshippers in Sadr City that "we denounce the killing of Emos, but as a Muslims we refuse their imitations of Western style."
So far, the government has not offered any specific protections for Emos or given any other assurances that they won't be targeted with violence. Earlier this week, students at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad protested that they were being harassed by security forces on campus because of their clothing styles or mannerisms.
"Anyone who is wearing something unusual, they think is an Emo," said al-Souhail, who has called on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to personally address Iraq's youth about the issue. "Our young people are fighting for their rights - they think they cannot express their opinions about what is happening."
Also Friday, the Iraqi wing of al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a well-orchestrated attack this month in a Sunni city west of Baghdad that left 25 policemen dead. The Islamic State of Iraq boasted in a statement posted on a militant website that as many as 90 of its fighters easily seized control of Haditha in the pre-dawn raid on March 5. The al-Qaida statement warned Iraqis they will never be safe.
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Click here to watch the CNN report on the "emo killings" in Iraq. We warn you that the footage is, at times, graphic.