"I'm not a terrorist," he tells the Iraqi police who surround him. "I want you to know I am different. But I am not a terrorist."
He was gay. He wore his hair long and took female hormones to grow breasts. Amused by his appearance, Iraqi police officers stopped him in December at a checkpoint in a southern Baghdad neighborhood dominated by radical Shiite militias. They groped Saleh and ridiculed him.
"Unfortunately, it was too late," Hili says. Saleh turned up dead two months later, he says.
At least 82 gay men have been killed in Iraq since December, according to Iraqi LGBT. The violence has raised questions about the Iraqi government's ability to protect a diverse range of vulnerable minority groups that also includes Christians and Kurds, especially following the
The militants "want to educate the society to accept killers on the street," al-Alusi says in an interview. "Why did Hitler start with gays? They are weak. They have no political cover. They have no legal cover."
The attacks have terrified a gay community that, for a brief time after the U.S. troop surge in 2007-08, tentatively enjoyed greater freedom and security.
"I am worried about my life," says a middle-age gay man in Baghdad who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Hassan. He declined to be identified by his real name because the recent violence has made him fear for his life. "I don't know what to do," he says.
Hili and other gay rights activists believe the killers operate with the complicity and sometimes the direct involvement of Iraqi security forces.
As part of a drive to stop the sectarian violence that peaked in Iraq in 2006-07, those forces have taken into their ranks numerous former militia members from the Mahdi Army (loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr) and the pro-Iranian Badr Brigade.
"The Ministry of Interior in Iraq is behind this campaign of terror," Hili says in an e-mail.He says witnesses have told him that police harass and beat suspected gays at checkpoints and sometimes turn them over to militias for execution.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf disputes such allegations. He says the ministry has assigned a special bureau to investigate the killings of gays; he says he knows of six gays who had been executed as of May.
Homosexuality, Khalaf says, is against the law and "is rejected by the customs of our society." He adds, however, that offenders should be handled by the courts, not dispatched by vigilante groups.
The killers aren't just executing their gay victims. They are "mutilating their bodies and torturing them," says fundamentalist Sunni cleric Sheik Mohammed al-Ghreri, who has criticized the violence.
Hili says the militias have come up with a particularly cruel way to inflict pain: sealing victims' anuses with glue, then force-feeding them laxatives. Hili says he has spoken to several victims who survived the ordeal.
'You can just be crushed'
Besides targeting gays, Sadr City militias also are harassing and sometimes killing straight young men who violate fundamentalist fashion and decorum by wearing low-riding pants and other Western-style clothing, slicking back their hair or making it spiky, hanging out in cafes or pool halls or flirting with girls, says human rights activist Mohammed Jasim, 28.
"The campaign is against gays and anybody who looks gay" in the eyes of militiamen indoctrinated to believe immodest dress is an affront to God, Jasim says.
"Young people felt their city had been liberated," says Jasim's friend Wisam Mizban, 32.
"They thought they could wear what they wanted. The militias felt threatened and started killing them. They are doing their crimes under the cover of the government. … Most young people want a civilized life. The militias and the government are putting pressure on them again."
The campaign has had a chilling effect on Baghdad's nightlife.
Entrepreneur Ali al-Ali opened the Shisha coffee shop in an upstairs storefront overlooking a bustling street in the upscale Karrada neighborhood. The place quickly became a hangout for young gay men, who'd sit and talk and drink lattes, and smoke flavored tobacco from the water pipes that gave the cafe its name.
But as the militias started killing gay men, Ali discouraged gays from congregating at his cafe. "If (militias) see gays coming here, maybe they will target me outside Karrada," al-Ali says.
His sentiments were echoed by Hussam Abdullah, whose tea shop also used to be a hangout for gay men — until militias warned Abdullah there would be trouble if he didn't send them away. So he did.
The militias usually send out warnings before they attack. Posters go up in Sadr City listing the offenders — gay and flashy straight men — by name and neighborhood. "If you don't give up what you are doing," said a recent one seen by a USA TODAY reporter, "death will be your fate. And this warning will come true, and the punishment will be worse and worse."
The poster referred to the offenders as "puppies," the fundamentalist epithet for gays here. "In Arabic culture, if you want to insult someone you call them a dog," human rights activist Yanar Mohammed says. "If you're a small dog, you can just be crushed."
Among those listed was a young man named Allawi Hawar, a local soccer star who incurred the wrath of the militias by wearing his hair long and partying with his friends in Sadr City cafes.
Hawar was playing pool one day last month when two masked men drove up on a motor scooter. One climbed off and made his way inside the cafe, clutching a pistol.
"We have something to deal with," he announced to startled patrons, according to witness Emad Saad, 25.
The gunman grabbed Hawar and dragged him outside. Then he shot the young athlete in the leg. After Hawar crumpled to the ground, bleeding, the gunman shot him again and killed him, Saad says.
The militiamen pick their targets by entering cafes and looking for men who appear feminine or too showy, Saad says. Then they ask around to get the offenders' names, and later put them on the death lists distributed around town.
Saad himself likes to wear Western jeans and slicked-back hair. He has taken to carrying a Glock pistol, awaiting his showdown with the militias.
"Some people are afraid, but I am not," he says. "I have done nothing wrong."
The Sadr City warning posters do not appear to be the work of educated theologians. A recent one was filled with Arabic misspellings, including a faulty rendering of "compassionate" — part of one of the 99 names for God.
But Ali Hili, the London activist, and others believe high-level clerics have ordered the killings. Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani several years ago decreed that the punishment for homosexuality is death "if it is proven before the religious judge."
An Iraqi TV channel, Alsumaria, reported that Sunni cleric al-Ghreri has called for the execution of gays. Al-Ghreri denies issuing such a statement, but concedes that some "stubborn" clerics might support the death penalty for gays.
He says homosexuality is "abnormal" and that gays should know that "freedom has limits." First, he says, gays should be warned to change their offensive behavior.
If that fails, he says, they should be jailed. If detentions don't work, they should endure 100 lashes for engaging in gay sex. And if four separate lashings fail and if witnesses testify against the suspects, he says, then they should be executed.
Exactly what unleashed the recent wave of violence is unclear.
Some — including Hassan, the middle-age gay man — trace the terror to a birthday party around New Year's at a cafe on Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad.
The party attracted about 20 gay men who cut loose on the dance floor, celebrating what they thought was their freedom in a more peaceful, stable Iraq. A video of the revelry was entitled Gay Scandal and distributed around the city.
"This was the start of it," Hassan says. "It made the ministry people crazy."
In London, activist Hili calls the party "a foolish action from members of our community who let their guard down."
However, he doesn't believe the party "was the spark that ignited all the flames."
Hili says the violence started earlier, with clerical fatwas against gays and police raids in December in Najaf, Karbala and Kut.
The search for safety
Unable to trust the authorities — and in some cases shunned by their own families — many Iraqi gays have gone into hiding. Hassan and some gay friends say they had found refuge in a house in Karrada. But as the threat against them increased, they became afraid the police would find them. So they scattered.
Hassan says he sometimes stays at home with his brothers — their parents are dead — but he's afraid even of them, afraid they will kill him because he has brought shame to the family.
He says he wanted to move in with his sister, who lives in Abu Dhabi. She turned him away, saying she didn't want her children to know they have a gay uncle.
Unwilling to trust the police, Iraqi LGBT has set up its own safe houses for gays in Iraq. The group has struggled to raise money and had to close three safe houses in the past couple of months, leaving just one open.
Hili says five safe houses are needed, each of them housing 10 to 12 gay refugees. Rent for a 2,150-square-foot safe house is usually $600 a month. Yet other expenses pile up: security guards, food, fuel, medical bills, pots and pans, bedding.
"We desperately need to add more because we have so many urgent cases," Hili says. "We receive requests for shelter every day, but are not able to help."
Things were better for gays, Hassan says, under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein.
"In the Saddam era, it wasn't like this," he says. Saddam's security forces, offended by Hassan's openly gay lifestyle, once arrested him and hauled him to court. The judge let him go, ruling that he had done nothing wrong.
"Now, you don't know who to be afraid of," he says. "Forget about freedom or democracy. We just want our safety."