ERBIL, Iraq, July 15 - Each night at 10 p.m. this week, Kurds in this northern city have gathered in front of their televisions to watch the videotaped confessions of a man known simply as Sheik Zana.
A local shopkeeper and mechanical engineer, the sheik says he and his followers beheaded, dismembered, gunned down, blackmailed and raped fellow citizens here in Iraqi Kurdistan for as long as a decade, until he was found out and arrested.
For months, Arabic-language channels have been broadcasting confessions of terrorist suspects that have at once increased ratings and raised suspicions that the statements may have been coerced or staged.
But Sheik Zana's confessions, delivered in Kurdish, stand out because he and his followers had a habit of videotaping not only what appear to be horrific murders and rapes, but also sex among themselves and with the young men whom they were trying to recruit for their cause.
Exactly what that cause may have been is a matter of debate among regular viewers of the programs. Sheik Zana has said that he was closely affiliated with extremist Islamic terrorist groups in Iraq, and that much of what he did was a kind of training program intended to produce ruthless killers.
The programs, distributed to television stations by Kurdish intelligence and security services, are intended to expose terrorist recruiting tactics and punch holes in their religious sales pitch.
Even in a heavily edited format that has cut out the most explicit acts, the images of gay sex are vying with those of beheadings in attracting the attention, and revulsion, of viewers. Nadia Mohamad, 49, a government employee who was watching the program with her husband and children while having dinner at the Sky Cafe in downtown Erbil on Thursday night, said the beheading of a terrified youth on the first program - shown before the sex scenes began appearing - had literally sickened her.
"The first time I saw it, I vomited, because I couldn't control myself," Mrs. Mohamad said.
But then, she said, she was almost equally shocked when the men started stripping and fondling each other before the scene cut away to Sheik Zana and about half a dozen of his underlings giving confessions against blank backdrops. "Sex is something sacred for us," Mrs. Mohamad said. "But when we saw them doing that, it becomes humiliating."
It was hard to find anyone who did not express outrage at the sex scenes when asked about the programs this week. "The homosexual part - that's the worst thing," said Arkan Hamza, 27, who was having lunch with a friend at the Abu Shahab Restaurant on Wednesday. During those parts of the show, he said, members of his family "were very unhappy and surprised and were speaking at the TV screen."
Among the elements of the Arabic-language confessions that some viewers regard as suspicious are stock admissions by the supposed terrorists that they are gay. Because gay sex is haram, or forbidden, in the Koran, some critics have suggested that the speakers have been induced to make those statements to embarrass themselves.
None of the earlier statements came with videotaped sex scenes, but even with the documentary evidence, the Kurdish confessions have also left some viewers skeptical. "I don't believe all this," said Miran, 34, an accountant who asked that only his first name be used. The confession tapes are not continuous, sometimes jumping from one statement to another, he noted, with no time stamps on the images.
Still, Fekri Baroshi, a Kurd from Turkey who is a documentary filmmaker and has watched each installment closely, said there was no technical reason to think that the videotapes were manipulated. He said the only confusing part about Sheik Zana's group was that their generalized mayhem did not seem to achieve anything.
"They have done all these bad things for nothing," Mr. Baroshi said.
Long a relatively peaceful town in the Kurdish north, Erbil has endured two deadly suicide bombings in the past three months, and officials here say that a security sweep has recently netted members of six separate terrorist groups. Masrour Barzani, chief of intelligence for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which effectively rules this part of Iraqi Kurdistan, said many of those arrested would be giving confessions on the program as part of an effort to discredit the groups.
As violent as the televised segments are, Mr. Barzani said, others that have been captured are "so savage and so disgusting that we cannot even show to the public all that we have collected."
The respected independent Kurdish newspaper Hawlati reported Wednesday that investigators had found compact discs with four hours of video taken by Sheik Zana and his group of more than a dozen followers, including scenes of sex with both men and women. At least one of the women, who may have been kidnapping victims, is sexually mutilated and killed in the videos, the newspaper reported.
The broadcast segments began Monday with a frightened-looking Sheik Zana cowering in a dim, echoing room and beginning his confession. The sheik, whose full name is Zana Nasrat Sheik Abdul Karim, then appeared in a different room looking much more self-assured and with a full beard that he did not have in the first segment. He looked into the camera and said brazenly, "It was very easy to slaughter people."
A mechanical engineer with air-conditioning expertise, the sheik was well known in Erbil for running a sundries market. "We went there sometimes to buy something with our families," said Binar Jelal, 18, who was eating ice cream in the Sky Cafe on Wednesday with two of his friends.
But Sheik Zana had another life, and he now faces scores of charges including at least two dozen counts of murder. In separate confessions on the program, half a dozen of his henchmen fill out the bloody tale, although there is no narrator or audible interrogator and the monologues produce a patchwork storyline at best.
The series has produced little sympathy for the accused. "We hope there is more of these programs," said Mazin, a physician, 35, who asked that only his first name be used as he conversed through the open driver's-side window of his BMW in the parking lot of the Abu Shahab Restaurant.
"Because," Mazin said in English, "people are thirsty to see the black end of these criminals."