Iraqi gays are claiming success following the decision of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to remove from his website a fatwa calling for the killing of homosexuals in the “worst, most severe way possible”.

The removal on 10 May 2006 follows protests to Mr Sistani by the London office of the Iraqi gay rights organisation, Iraqi LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), which represents a clandestine network of lesbian and gay activists inside Iraq’s major cities, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Hilla, Duhok and Basra.

Following two weeks of negotiations with Iraqi LGBT – UK, Mr Sistani’s office agreed to remove the fatwa calling for the murder of gay men, but refused to remove the fatwa urging punishment for lesbianism.

Initially, the office had demanded that Iraqi LGBT-UK delete their criticisms of Mr Sistani from their website and apologise to the Grand Ayatollah for questioning his religious authority.

Iraqi LGBT-UK refused. It issued a counter-demand that Mr Sistani remove his ‘death to gays’ fatwa from his website. After two weeks negotiations, Mr Sistani’s representatives in London and Najaf agreed to drop the homophobic fatwa from his website, except

for the section calling for the punishment of lesbianism.

“We welcome the decision to remove the most murderously homophobic part of Sistanti’s fatwa from his website,” said gay Iraqi refugee, Ali Hili, who heads the organisation Iraqi LGBT – UK (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender). Mr Ali is also Middle East Affairs spokesperson for the British LGBT rights movement, OutRage!, which works closely with Iraqi LGBT – UK.

“This decision does not go far enough. The fatwa has been removed from Sistani’s website only. It has not been revoked. We want the entire fatwa withdrawn, including the hateful denunciation calling for the punishment of lesbians.

“Iraqi LGBT-UK urges Sistani to apologise and revoke his fatwa calling for the murder of homosexuals, and to issue a new fatwa condemning all vigilante violence, including vigilante attacks on gay and lesbian people.

“We believe that Sistani’s fatwa has encouraged and sanctioned the current wave of execution-style assassinations of lesbians and gay men. He owes gay Iraqis an apology. He owes all Iraqis an apology for setting straight Iraqis against gay Iraqis.

“Endorsing the murder of other human beings is unIslamic. Our Muslim faith is one of love, compassion, tolerance and mercy. Hatred and prejudice have no legitimate place in our religion.

“Sistani’s encouragement of homophobic violence provokes negative views towards the Islamic faith and towards Muslim people.

“Iraqi LGBT-UK holds Sistani personally responsible for the murder of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iraqis. He gives the killers theological sanction and encouragement,” said Mr Hili.

Outrage’s Peter Tatchell said: “We salute our gay Iraqi friends and allies. They have secured a very significant victory.

“It is thanks to their tenacious efforts that Sistani has removed his murderous fatwa from public display on his website.”

The fatwa initially appeared on the Arabic version of his website.