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Extremists Crack Down on Liquor Stores in Iraq

Militants have begun targeting shops, trying to enforce Islamic laws. Many owners have given up, while others hire guards or sell secretly.

October 04, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Shop owner Yousef Elias keeps three guards on the sidewalk, a Kalashnikov behind the counter and a wary eye out for possible attackers.

He even has taken down the sign advertising the newly risky enterprise taking place inside: the sale of liquor.

It is an especially tense time for the dwindling number of liquor-store owners in Baghdad and some outlying cities. Booze outlets have been targeted in a string of summertime bombings and shooting attacks after receiving threats from Islamic militants who consider the sale of alcohol a grave violation of Islamic law.

The biggest burst of violence came in July, when bombs rocked half a dozen liquor outlets along a busy commercial corridor near central Baghdad and destroyed three others in the city of Baqubah, about 35 miles to the northeast.

Liquor sellers also have been targeted in the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Fallouja, west of Baghdad, and in Basra, in the Shiite Muslim south.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. But the assaults are widely believed to be the work of one or more armed groups intent on enforcing religious strictures at a time when governmental authority is scattered and weak.

Many people here suspect the involvement of the Al Mahdi militia, which is loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. His followers reportedly have issued leaflets that list activities worthy of the death penalty, including prostitution and the sale of alcohol.

Unlike in other Muslim countries in the Middle East, liquor has been freely available in Iraq's secular society and was a big part of social life under Saddam Hussein.

Since the July bombings, threats have continued against the liquor merchants, some of whom became so frightened that they reduced hours of operation, closed their stores or converted the shops into ordinary grocery stores -- sans beer and spirits.

Elias, 34, has decided to remain in the liquor business despite the threats and a grenade attack seven months ago that left his store unscathed but rattled his nerves. He said he closed down for a time after the recent bombing wave, when four men showed up at his door warning that they would destroy the place if he didn't shut it.

Elias reopened in August. He took down his original sign, which identified the business as a liquor outlet, and painted "Exchange" in red above the front door so the shop would appear to be a currency exchange. So far, the ploy seems to have worked.

"Of course it's unsafe. But it's my job. I'm feeding my family from this job," Elias said on a recent afternoon, standing within reach of the rifle that leaned against the wall. The shelves were stocked with obscure brands of cut-rate Scotch and gin; an iron bathtub stood ready to serve as an oversized ice chest for beer.

"The only alternatives I have are: continue working here or leave the country," he said.

In late August, a liquor-shop owner in another Baghdad neighborhood was killed when masked men walked up to his store in the middle of the day and fired two shots, neighbors said. They said that the slain owner, Sabah Macardige, had received warnings months earlier and had stopped selling alcohol openly, but that he secretly continued selling to trusted customers.

The attacks on liquor stores are seen as part of a broader offensive by Islamic militants also targeting shops that offer CDs and DVDs with sexual content, as well as beauty parlors and clothing stores whose merchandise is deemed too racy.

Several CD-store owners in Baghdad said they had grown as uneasy as the liquor vendors.

"We are depending on God," said Aysar Abdul-Karim, 30, who added that he was careful not to sell films that could be seen as pornographic. On the shelf nearby were bootleg DVDs of mainstream American films, such as "Finding Nemo" and "The Whole Nine Yards," along with CDs of Arab pop music.

The wave of violence against the liquor stores, in particular, has unnerved members of the Christian minority, who are concentrated mainly in the Baghdad area and traditionally have been the only Iraqis licensed by the government to sell alcohol.

Combined with a series of bombings against five churches in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul on Aug. 1, the attacks on Christian-owned stores have stoked worries of a broader campaign against Christians, who make up about 3% of Iraq's 24 million people.

But there is little sign that the attacks on liquor outlets have done much to diminish drinking. The recent spate of closures has resulted in an unofficial, Prohibition-style market for alcohol.

Not far from the charred shells of bombed businesses, unlicensed vendors on Ghadeer Street have taken to selling beer from the trunks of their cars.

At the Jadiriyah Bridge in a different section of town, nocturnal alcohol sales are brisk and well organized -- beer is sold on top of the bridge and whiskey beneath.

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