BAGHDAD — In January, a video began circulating on mobile phones 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 killings and persecution of gays by Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias.

The Iraqi LGBT, a London-based group that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iraqis, says it has documented 87 killings in Iraq related to anti-gay sentiments since the beginning of the year, including six in the past two weeks.

And in a report released Monday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch says the numbers killed during the past few years because they were gay or suspected of being gay could run into "hundreds," adding that 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 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 it interviewed, the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-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 party video, but that's when gays in Baghdad say they noticed a sharp change in how they were treated.

Police began stopping men who looked effeminate at checkpoints and comparing their faces to those in the video, activists said.

Shiite clerics began preaching against gays at Friday prayers in the mosques. Lists of names of men believed to be gay were posted on the streets in the mostly-Shiite slum neighborhood of Sadr City, with warnings 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 fears 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 that had prevailed over the past two years had encouraged many gays to become more open about their orientation, activists said, and that in turn 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 gays who did get 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 urged that they should be given priority by the U.N. among Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement elsewhere.

Those that remain behind 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 backlash by religious extremists, adding that he has been rejected by his family and lives in one of a number of safe houses provided for gays by Iraqi LGBT.

"I could have left, but I love my country and I didn't," he said. "I was stupid."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.