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In Iraq, Booze Becomes a Risky Business
By Pamela Constable
BAGHDAD, July 20 -- After nightfall, it was one of the busiest streets in postwar Baghdad. Cars lined up two and three thick, motors idling while drivers ducked into The Mirage or several other popular liquor shops to grab a six-pack or a bottle of imported Scotch en route to a party.
Now, Ghadeer Street has fallen dead silent. The sidewalks are littered with broken glass and dotted with heaps of neatly swept rubble, each marking a spot where, on several nights last week, precisely planted bombs exploded in the doorways of five liquor stores.
"These are Islamic extremists who believe alcohol is bad. They want to impose their ideas on society by force, and they are taking advantage of democracy and the lack of security," said Sadiq Faraj, a real estate dealer whose office was damaged in one blast. "If Saddam [Hussein] were still in power, they would have been executed immediately."
In Iraq's secularized Muslim society, liquor has long been an accepted part of socializing, and hard-drinking night life was an escapist staple of life under Hussein's dictatorship. After the U.S.-led invasion toppled Hussein last year, the influx of foreigners and the shutdown of the import duty system spurred a new liquor boom, and shops like The Mirage were swamped with customers.
But in the past several weeks, alcohol dealers across the city have been targeted for attack, reportedly by fundamentalist Islamic groups determined to eradicate vice and emboldened by the confused and lawless atmosphere of the current political transition.
Leaflets and graffiti have warned liquor shop owners to close or face violent consequences. Explosive devices have been detonated at stores in four neighborhoods, and one owner who defied several warnings was gunned down last Thursday at dusk as he sat outside his shop in the seedy commercial district of Kamalia.
Witnesses said the killer, a young man in street clothes, emerged from a parked Opel sedan, strolled up to the shop, pulled out a pistol and pumped a hail of bullets into the owner, Abu Sari Salem, 52.
They said the gunman escaped in his car; Salem died on the way to the hospital.
"He had been threatened several times, but he refused to close. He told me he would never leave his job, even if they blew up his store," said Saad Mahmoud, 26, who operates a spare-parts store near Salem's shop. "He said it was the only source of income he had."
Like Salem and the liquor sellers of Ghadeer Street, many of the attack victims have been Christians, a minority in Iraq who have traditionally sold liquor in neighborhood enclaves. Some Iraqis said they fear the assailants are trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians who have long coexisted peacefully.
But the violence has also been directed more broadly at activities in Baghdad's run-down red-light districts, including Kamalia, where residents said religious groups had recently begun campaigns to rid the community of prostitution, Gypsy dancers and video parlors, as well as the selling of alcohol.
In recent months, similar anti-vice crusades have sprung up in other areas of Iraq as Islamic militants have gained footholds. In the north, movie theaters and package stores have been attacked in Mosul and Kirkuk, and on July 10 three liquor shops were bombed in Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of the capital.
In Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim stronghold west of Baghdad that is controlled by a combination of Iraqi security forces and Islamic militants, liquor sellers and others accused of moral corruption have been beaten and paraded naked in the streets. Offenders were told to take their business to Baghdad.
Although no one has asserted responsibility for the recent spate of attacks in the capital, some Iraqis contend they are the work of armed Shiite Muslim groups, such as the Mahdi Army militia led by firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr.
Last Friday, a cleric close to Sadr delivered a sermon at a mosque in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district, a bustling hub of Shiite religious and commercial activities. He gave local liquor dealers 48 hours to close their businesses, warning that "alcohol, songs and prostitutes" were not welcome in the "sacred" zone.
In Kamalia, residents this week dismissed the need for any moral purge and blamed the attacks on criminals and saboteurs out to disrupt normal life. They also criticized the government for failing to curb violent crime and urban terrorism.
"These are bad people, and what they are doing is not mentioned in any religion," said Sabir Kadhim, an auto mechanic whose garage is next to Salem's shop. "The problem is that we have no government to stop such attacks.
"Is this jihad they are waging?" he demanded angrily. "If they want jihad, they can go fight the Americans."
The attacks have already succeeded in intimidating many merchants. At the Honey Market in central Baghdad, which sells expensive imported foods mainly to foreigners, owner Namir Naum said Tuesday that he had decided to stop selling all liquor for at least the next month.
And in Kamsarah, another Christian neighborhood where two adjacent liquor shops were bombed last week, one proprietor sweeping out his charred shop Monday morning refused to give his name and said the other shopkeeper had just fled to Syria.
"No one knows who has done this, or why," said the owner, who has sold liquor in his food ration shop for the past seven years without any harassment. "They are cowards who just want to create problems, and we have no protection. In Saddam's time we could walk home at 5 a.m. and no one would bother us. Now everything has changed."
Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.
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