Reporting from Baghdad — It started in the Green Zone, with Iraqi soldiers ordering restaurants to stop serving alcohol and confiscating bottles from politicians at checkpoints.
Then, mysterious signs began appearing across the rest of Baghdad declaring alcohol sinful and warning of damnation for those who drink.
Finally, the crackdown came. Phalanxes of soldiers and police officers descended on the nightclubs, cabarets and bars that had proliferated across the capital in the last two years and symbolized for many a return to normality.
Now Baghdad is almost dry, for the second time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But this time the government is enforcing the prohibition, not militias or insurgents.
"Our new constitution guarantees all freedoms for all Iraqi people," said Ahmed Jassim Hamza, whose Deluxe nightclub on the Tigris River was among those raided by soldiers and ordered to close. "But the political powers in control are Islamic, and they can't handle social freedoms such as alcohol because their minds are narrowed by religion."
The crackdown was headed by the Baghdad provincial council, which is controlled by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. But many suspect Maliki himself played a role in the decision to restrict alcohol, to burnish his credentials among Islamist voters before elections in March.
Hamza and several restaurant and liquor store owners said police told them they were acting "on the orders of the prime minister's office."
"It is Maliki who is doing this," said Mithal Alusi, an independent Sunni Arab lawmaker with an acknowledged fondness for good wine. He questions the Shiite Muslim leader's much-touted reinvention as a secularist at the head of his new State of Law coalition, even while continuing to lead an Islamist party.
"We are not that far away from having a Taliban state in this country," he said. "We are really driving in two different directions: One is toward a beautiful democracy and the other is toward the Taliban parties who are trying to turn us into an Islamic state."
Baghdad officials with Maliki's party say they are acting only to impose order on a situation that had spun out of control in enforcing a liquor law that has been on the books since 1994. Introduced after Saddam Hussein embarked on a campaign of religiosity, it restricts sales of alcohol to licensed stores and a few private clubs and hotels.
On the eve of the regime's fall, 55 businesses had licenses to sell alcohol, Baghdad provincial council chief Kamal Zaidi said. Islamist militias and insurgents soon closed them, blowing up liquor stores and intimidating merchants.
With the restoration of a measure of security in 2007, alcohol returned, and by late last year more than 350 shops, bars and clubs serving liquor had opened, almost all without permission, Zaidi said.
"This is too much for the social fabric of Baghdad. In no country is such chaos allowed," Zaidi said. "It's not an issue of whether I personally want to ban alcohol. We don't have laws on the basis of wish. Our concern is dealing with those who do anything to violate the freedoms of others, their customs and traditions."
Even for many secular Baghdad residents, the expansion of their city's night life had gone too far. In the upscale neighborhood of Arasat, nearly a dozen clubs had opened in recent months, transforming the sedate area into a throbbing nighttime hot spot.
Crowds of young men would descend noisily on the streets, swigging from bottles, urinating on the walls of homes, cavorting with women and getting into fights, residents complain. Many of the clubs were thinly disguised venues for prostitution, and men who live in the area said they were afraid to allow their female relatives to go out after dark.
"This is a family area," said Ali Kadhim, who lives next to one of the clubs and welcomed their closure, even though he says he would not support a ban on alcohol. "It was too much. It was abnormal."
Whether the crackdown is merely an attempt to impose order or the beginning of a broader effort by Islamists to outlaw drinking altogether is unclear. On one Baghdad street, liquor stores have reopened without incident. Zaidi said licensed stores would be allowed to open but clubs and bars would remain closed.
When Saad Khalaf recently tried to reopen his store -- which has a valid license prominently displayed next to a poster of a bikini-clad blond -- police stormed in and beat him with rifle butts, leaving him with bruises and cuts all over his body.
"This is worse than it was under the militias," he said. "At least with the militias you could talk to them, you could bribe them."
Several bar and restaurant owners, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, said they had been bribing the police all along but that the bribes had stopped working.
"Now they take the money, but still they shut you down," said the owner of one restaurant who has been serving alcohol since the 1980s.
The upcoming elections may help decide the fate of liquor in Baghdad. A strong showing for Islamist parties could give momentum to those who would like to ban alcohol, said Mohammed Rubaie, a Baghdad council representative with a secular party.
"But I don't think it would be possible," Rubaie said. "Iraq is not an extremist society. It is neither very religious nor very liberal."
Meanwhile, people who enjoy a drink are chafing.
"The mosques are all still open and anyone who wants can go and pray, so why can't the bars also be open?" said retired army officer Hamza Khafajee, who used to sip whiskey in a bar with his friends every night but now stays home and hasn't had a drink in nearly a month.
"The Iraqi people lived in agony for far too long. We should be allowed a little comfort and relaxation," he grumbled. "It's not asking for much."
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Mohammed Arrawi contributed to this report.