The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has promised to crack down on the persecution of gay people in Iraq.

The slaughter of gay Iraqis by Islamist death squads is yet another tragic consequence of the chaos and carnage in this beleaguered country.

It would seem that no-one is safe from fundamentalist militias, who target Iraqis for “crimes against Islam,” which might include drinking alcohol, having a Sunni name, or not being veiled if you are a woman.

Sectarian blackmail, mutilation, and assassination of gays are rife.

In 2005, Iraq’s leading Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa ordering the execution of gay Iraqis.

The followers of rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr, too, are proving they are all too eager to murder gays.

Now pressure from gay and human rights groups has forced the FCO to tackle these attacks on gay Iraqis.

As late as May last year, a letter drafted by FCO officials was reluctant to address this problem.

“We are of course aware of reports about the activities of so-called death squads in Iraq who are allegedly targeting people whose values are different from their own,” the letter read.

“This problem has mainly been centred on differences in religious belief and ethnicity, but we are aware of reports that it has now spread to include sexual orientation.

“It is difficult, however, to assess clearly the extent of this problem and how much it reflects criminality and local feuding as opposed to widespread or organised movement against any particular group or groups.”

April 2006 saw more wavering from the FCO over reports of persecution of gays. In a communication, an FCO official gave their opinion that: “The position of homosexuality in Iraqi law is not clear. There is no specific law that we know of against homosexuality but there are others that could be seen to see it as illegal.”

By August 2006, however, the targeting of gays in Iraq was a hot topic. The Observer ran an article: “Gays flee Iraq as Shia death squads find a new target.”

People started writing to the FCO, who prepared the following statement in response:

“We are aware of reports of increasing violence and intimidation against homosexual men in Iraq.

This is in the context of a wider rise in violence against Iraqi civilians including violence against women, sectarian violence and violence against minorities.

“We condemn all violence and intimidation and are working with the Iraqi government to tackle this, including by helping strengthen the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces. More widely, we are working to promote respect for the rule of law and human rights by and for all Iraqis.

“We raise issues of concern, such as the reports of increasing levels of violence against minorities with the Iraqi government on a regular basis.”

But gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell warns that these murders are an ominous sign of things to come.

Writing in the New Humanist, he accuses some Iraqi police and government ministers of colluding in the killings, and argues that: “the execution of lesbian and gay Iraqis by Islamist death squads and militia is symptomatic of the fate that will befall all Iraqis if the fundamentalists continue to gain influence. The summary killing of queers is the canary in the mine – a warning of the barbarism to come.”