By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 4, 2010; A01
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.
During the 1990s, in an effort to appease conservative tribes whose support he desperately needed after uprisings by Shiites and Kurds, Hussein tightened social norms.
The party life suffered, Suleiman said, but liquor stores and some bars remained in business.
During the sectarian war that began in 2006, insurgents targeted liquor stores, which they deemed sinful, and they burned trucks transporting booze.
"During the sectarian years, we closed because we were a target," said Aziz al-Azidi, one of the managers at the liquor store. "They threatened us, and they threw grenades to destroy liquor stores."
As security improved in 2008 and dogmatic groups lost sway in Baghdad and other key cities, Suleiman opened his store again and began importing truckloads of wine, beer and spirits from neighboring Turkey.
In recent weeks, he and other liquor-store owners across Baghdad were told they would not receive new licenses after theirs expired at the end of the year.
"The citizens want their stores open," Suleiman said. "The people of Iraq need an open, secular country. But the government is trying to take a conservative route."
Radi Hassan, who owns a fish restaurant across the street from the shuttered bars, said he was pleased to see them raided.
"These places were operating without a license," he said, standing outside his restaurant on a chilly afternoon. "They even had dancing women inside, women of the night."
So far, security has been the dominant issue among politicians vying for votes in the election. But politicians have increasingly addressed issues of morality and social norms in parliamentary debates, articles in newspapers and on the campaign trail. Some have argued that the current government is overly influenced by religion; others have defended the government's right to set strict societal norms.
The Baghdad provincial council received numerous complaints about the nightclubs before ordering the raids, said council member Mohammed Rubaie.
Rubaie, among the most secular members on the council, suggested that the establishments be allowed to reopen in a nonresidential area, but his initiative got little backing.
"Don't forget -- the Baghdad provincial council is led by an Islamic party and most of its members are Islamic party members," Rubaie said.
Similar debates are taking place in the teeming Sadr City district, miles from Abu Nawas Street and among the most conservative in the capital.
On a recent afternoon, at the end of the school day, a small group of educators debated the recent enforcement of a policy that bars coed middle and high schools.
The rule is a burden in places such as Sadr City, where fighting left many schools in shambles and qualified teachers are scarce.
"We are a tribal society," said Ahmed Ghata Saber, an Islamic studies teacher at a middle school in Sadr City who opposes mixed-sex education.
"There is nothing more important than to keep our society safe."
Colleague Mohammed Salim Gati, who teaches English, disagreed, saying the division creates misunderstandings about the opposite sex.
"Mixed schools are a better idea for us," he said. "Their level of intelligence and understanding would be better."
Principal Zaid Ruhaim Mohammed said the policy was misguided and useless.
"When they leave school," he said, "they find ways of playing together."
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.