Iraqis who identify themselves as so-called Emos smoke a traditional "shisha" water pipe on Wednesday, as its smoke obscures their identity, in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. (Alaa al-Marjani/AP)

Panic is spreading among young people in Iraq after reports by Iraqi media and rights groups that dozens of people have been threatened or killed in the past few weeks because they are suspected of being gay or because they dress in a distinctive, gothic style known as emo.

Lists threatening named people with death unless they change their attitude circulated anonymously late last week in Baghdad. Prominent clerics, as well as at least one police official, have condemned the emo — short for emotional — craze for its gloomy music and macabre look, which includes tight clothes and styled hair. The trend began in the 1980s in the West but has only recently become popular in the Arab world.

Some urban Iraqi teens and 20-somethings who had embraced the Western influences slowly permeating the country say they are cutting their hair and putting aside their fashionable clothes, abruptly reminded that Iraq remains both conservative and dangerous.

Police and medical officials deny that anyone has been killed for “being an emo,” but a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said Sunday that four men believed to be gay had been found dead in Baghdad in February, and the body of a young man was found in the city last week with a head injury caused by a large rock or brick.

A gruesome emblem

One image has become a gruesome emblem of the killings. Widely circulated on Facebook, it shows a young man dressed in a white jacket with carefully coiffed hair. Alongside the picture is another image, showing the same man dead and bloody in the back of a truck.

An Iraqi woman who worked as a media trainer in Baghdad and asked not to be named because she feared retribution, identified the man as Saif Raad, a student of hers, who had died on Feb. 17. “I think he was killed because of the way he was dressed,” she said. “People used to call him Saif the bride.”

Ali Hilli, an Iraqi activist with the London-based group Iraqi LGBT (the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), has obtained a police report saying that Raad was beaten to death.

Hilli said that members of Iraq’s gay community had reported a sharp increase in attacks since early February, mainly in the conservative, predominantly Shiite southern cities of Nasiriyah and Kufa. He said more than 30 gay men had been killed in recent weeks. The perpetrators were not known, he said, but they were groups of young, civilian men.

Hanaa Edwar of the al-Amal human rights group in Baghdad said she had received trustworthy reports of several killings and attacks on people because of their appearance in at least three Baghdad neighborhoods in recent weeks.

Edwar said that in Iraq, the terms emo and gay are often conflated to mean a person, especially a young man, whose appearance or manner is considered effeminate, Western or in some way different.

The rumors have sent Baghdad’s youth to barbershops to have long hair cut, and many of those who wear clothes in the emo style are choosing to stay at home.

One young man, interviewed in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood on Friday, said his friends were urging him daily to cut his long hair. The man, who would not give his name because he feared being targeted, said that the recent reports of violence were reminiscent of the worst days of sectarian war five years ago, when extremist militias targeted those deemed un-Islamic.

Iraq was isolated from Western culture under the repressive rule of Saddam Hussein, when satellite television, the Internet and cellphones were all but forbidden, and it remains a deeply conservative society.

Accusations of Satanism

The impetus behind the apparent spike in attacks was not clear, but the emo label has come under close scrutiny, prompting charges of Satanism among young people by police officials and clerics.

Last month, the Interior Ministry released a statement saying a community policing division had been “following up on the phenomenon of ‘emo,’ or Satanists.”

The statement said police had obtained “official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible,” citing threatening behavior, although officials have insisted that the statement did not mean that people would be harmed. The statement quoted Col. Mushtaq Talib Mohammadawi as saying that he had obtained permission to enter schools in Baghdad to address the problem. Mohammadawi declined to comment on the plan and whether it had been implemented.

Influential clerics have expressed concern about emo culture. Ammar al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq party, spoke last month about emo and other phenomena that are “so far from our norms, tradition and the religious and ethical constants.” He cautioned against violence but urged families to be wary.

Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-Western Shiite cleric and former Mahdi Army militia leader who heads the Sadrist political movement, described emo last week as an “epidemic of society,” and called for law enforcement officials to remove it.

“The problem really is religious people,” said Noof al-Assi, a recent graduate of Baghdad’s Fine Arts College, who said that many of her friends there dressed in the emo style. “If we were a normal country, this would be a normal style, but in Iraq, we have these crazy militias who make an excuse to kill people.”

Aziz Alwan and Asaad Alazawi in Baghdad contributed to this report.