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As violence dips, spirits rise in Baghdad

Liquor stores are back in business, though very discreetly, as improved security draws in once-scared customers.

November 03, 2007|Christian Berthelsen and Said Rifai | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — It's Thursday night, the end of the Iraqi workweek, and Fami Ameen is scrambling in his crowded Assassin's Gate liquor store as customers clamor for everything from beer and whiskey to ouzo and arak, the popular local alcohol.

Call Ameen an unexpected beneficiary of the "surge."

For decades, Iraq had a reputation as a modern, secular society that liked to drink and knew how to party, from wild hotel discotheques to genteel members-only social clubs. But after the fall of President Saddam Hussein, extremists unleashed waves of firebombings against liquor stores, even killing owners, because alcohol is forbidden under Islamic law.

Just a year ago, Iraqis' taste for alcohol, and the businesses that sated it, were written off as a casualty of the country's new Islam-dominated order.

But violence in Baghdad has dropped in recent months under the U.S. military's security crackdown. And although many stores are still shuttered, their faded Carlsberg awnings caked with dirt, the booze business has rebounded, as Iraqis negotiating the gulf between their faith and their proclivities strike a delicate balance, discreetly traveling from all over the city, and even other provinces, to the remaining liquor shops.

"People were reluctant to make the trip before the past six months, but now they are encouraged with the somewhat alleviated security," Ameen said. "My wish is that the trend would continue, and we could go back to the prewar levels of distribution -- perhaps even more."

With new shops like Ameen's opening in secured areas near fortified Western military outposts, some retailers even say their sales have declined, because they now have so much competition. In one dubious measure of the progress, they say their biggest fear is no longer the militias that targeted them for religious reasons, but the criminals that would kidnap them for their revived fortunes.

Ameen, 27, a burly man with a big mustache, recalls arriving at his old liquor store in east Baghdad one morning three years ago, only to discover it was gone. "It was blown to smithereens, just like that," he said.

He had a second shop in the mostly Shiite district of Karada, but closed it out of fear it would suffer the same fate. He then moved his businesses to the Assassin's Gate, an ornate sandstone arch just outside the entrance to the fortified Green Zone. Two months ago, he consolidated into a larger space across the street.

Ahmed Abud, 35, lives in the Shiite district of Sadr City, where the liquor shops have all closed. But as a truck driver, he has a good reason to drive all over the city, and he took advantage of that with a stop at Ameen's recently for two tall boys of Heineken, which cost a little more than a dollar apiece. (Whiskey goes for about $21 per bottle).

"I'm from Sadr City and I can't buy alcohol from there like before the war, so I have to make trips to places like these," Abud said. "It would be nice to be able to buy it from closer areas."

The restrictions on alcohol consumption began in the 1990s, when, in an effort to shore up support among religious conservatives, Hussein banned drinking in public, including in restaurants, clubs, bars and hotels.

The move had economic appeal too, because it prevented the conspicuous consumption of expensive Western alcohol by a shrinking upper class, curbing resentment among a growing class of low- and moderate-income Iraqis stung by U.N. sanctions at the time who could no longer afford such luxuries.

The clubs and bars that were legendary for all-night hedonism faded away.

Only liquor stores run by non-Muslims were allowed to remain, and Iraqis' revelry was relegated to their homes. But even that became more difficult after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, when liquor stores across Iraq, especially in the Shiite south, closed down amid the threats and violence.

Mehdi Hindi, a 19-year-old Christian whose family has long been in the liquor business, set up shop in the Assassin's Gate area after he received a call four years ago from neighbors of his Karada store saying it had been blown up. He moved to a new space four months ago to avoid a rent increase.

"This place has always been safe because of its proximity to the Green Zone and the government institutions," he said. "Business has been picking up recently, especially during the last three months. I think it has to do with the better security situation. People come from all over Baghdad to this place to buy their alcohol because the shops in their neighborhoods have closed."

But even as Iraqis begin returning to liquor stores, they still take care to remain inconspicuous. On a recent day outside a liquor store on Saadoun Street, two men with a case of Johnnie Walker in their car were removing the bottles from the brightly labeled box and stashing them under the seats and in other hiding places.

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