Alcohol Banned in Baghdad Airport

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 30, 2005

BAGHDAD, July 29 -- Iraq's transportation minister, a Shiite Muslim, has ordered a ban on alcohol sales at Baghdad International Airport, declaring that the facility is "a holy and revered" piece of Iraq, a spokesman said Friday.

The airport duty-free shop so far has refused to comply with the order by Salam Maliki. Airport officials said Maliki threatened to have the store's $800,000 supply of alcoholic beverages destroyed.

The alcohol ban heightened fears of some more-secular Iraqis that the Shiite Muslim majority might seek to impose a rigid interpretation of Islamic law in Iraq, traditionally considered to be tolerant in its observance of religious law. The order followed a visit Maliki made this month with other government officials to Iran, which is controlled by fundamentalist Shiite clerics.

Questions about religious law and the rights of women have come up frequently as Iraq's constitution-writing committee attempts to complete a draft by Aug. 15. Early drafts of the constitution have referred to sharia , or Islamic law, on such issues.

But members of the draft committee said the final version of the constitution would respect the rights of all Iraqis. Humam Hamoudi, chairman of the constitutional committee, told reporters this week that Iraq would steer a course between secular Turkey and theocratic Iran.

"We never agreed that Iraq is an Islamic state," said Adil Nasir, a Kurdish delegate to the committee drafting the constitution, after being told of the duty-free alcohol ban. "If they turn it into an Islamic state, it will affect the life of society."

Employees at the duty-free shop in the airport said they received a letter Thursday from the airport's director general, Emad Fasih Dawood, after a recent trip by Maliki. "In reference to the minister's airport visit the decision has been made to prevent the selling or advertising of alcohols in the duty-free shop," said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

A spokesman for Maliki confirmed the order.

"The issue is that the minister landed in the Baghdad airport and saw alcohol being sold there," Maliki's aide, Karim Jabiri, said Friday. "Given that the airport is a holy and revered part of Iraq's land, the minister ordered a ban on selling alcoholic drinks in the airport."

"The airport represents the new Iraq," the spokesman said. "We are an Islamic country."

An airport official said Maliki ordered the airport alcohol ban after flying into Baghdad's heavily guarded airport and noticing the shelves of whiskey, wine and other alcohol on display.

Alcohol sales in Baghdad's departure lounge and the separate lounges for private security contractors generate about 85 percent of duty-free sales there, the airport official said.

Although Maliki has traveled through Baghdad's airport numerous times, the airport official said the minister objected only after he participated in the government trip to Iran, where the government enforces prohibitions on alcohol as part of a legal code based on Islamic law.

Aides said Maliki was not available for comment Friday. But Jabiri expressed concern about Iraq's image if alcohol continues to be sold. "And this could corrupt the employees also," he said. "Foreign travelers might not even realize this is an Islamic country when they see alcohol in the airport."

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that ousted the secular government of President Saddam Hussein, the airport has been one of the few places in Iraq's capital where alcohol is sold openly.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, merchants and shops selling alcohol have been targeted by bombings and other attacks. Consuming alcoholic beverages is forbidden under most interpretations of the tenets of Islam. But many Iraqis drink alcoholic beverages, such as beer, whiskey or Iraq's harsh, grappa-like irak , more openly than people in many other Muslim countries.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company