Crackdown on alcohol seen as part of conservative moment in Iraq

A hired dancer is shown performing last year in a bar on Abu Nawas Street in Baghdad. Some Iraqis cite morality concerns in saying bars should be closed.
A hired dancer is shown performing last year in a bar on Abu Nawas Street in Baghdad. Some Iraqis cite morality concerns in saying bars should be closed. (Andrea Bruce/the Washington Post)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 4, 2010

BAGHDAD -- The banner appeared mysteriously this fall on a railing along Abu Nawas Street, the hub of nightlife on the banks of the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad, where the atmosphere in recent months has grown markedly more subdued.

"Damned is he who sits at a table with alcohol," the handwritten sign said.

Posted near a strip of nightclubs recently raided by police, the unsigned missive spoke to a new fight being fought across Iraq as government officials attempt to assert greater control over the country's moral and social norms.

The March 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent violence have made Iraq's moral compass swing wildly for the past six years. It has been a time of lax government authority; power struggles among armed groups including the Mahdi Army and al-Qaeda in Iraq, which imposed strict norms; and mass migration, which has changed the makeup and character of entire towns and cities.

In recent months, the pendulum has veered toward conservative mores. Government officials, including many competing in the upcoming parliamentary election, have sought to impose stricter limits on alcohol consumption and coeducational schools.

In some ways, whether the Iraq that emerges from the U.S. occupation becomes more conservative or more permissive than its neighbors will depend greatly on which politicians are chosen in that election, scheduled to take place March 7. But it is far from clear whether the upcoming contest will affirm or buck the current trend.

"Unfortunately, the democratic system in Iraq has led to the rise of undemocratic parties and movements that don't believe in the concept of human rights or personal freedoms," said Mithal Alousi, a secular Sunni lawmaker. "These parties are trying to leave an impression among the uneducated and the simple-minded people that they are the guardians of religion and proper behavior, and conversely, that secular parties are the ones promoting alcohol consumption and the opening of nightclubs, and thus are un-Islamic."

Alcohol is relatively hard to come by in Iraq's southern provinces, which are predominantly Shiite and tend to be more conservative than the rest of the country. Baghdad has several liquor stores, most owned and operated by Christians. Owners say they are afraid the government will drive their business underground by refusing to renew licenses.

Hazim al-Araaiy, a Shiite lawmaker who heads the conservative Sadrist bloc in parliament, said banning alcohol is long overdue to protect families and live within the tenets of Islam.

"Our policy on alcohol is firm -- we have always opposed it," he said. "We do not need such practices to win votes or leave the impression that we are faithful Muslims."

Few have as much riding on the outcome of the debate as Kamal Suleiman, owner of a prominent liquor store on Abu Nawas Street.

The strip, he recalled recently, was abuzz with nightlife during most of Saddam Hussein's regime. Parties sometimes lasted until dawn. Liquor-store owners had no trouble renewing yearly licenses.

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