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Baghdad Liquor Stores Reopen

Shopkeepers selling alcohol say they remain nervous about potential attacks by militants.
Mazin George is busily bagging up bottles of whisky and beer for his customers at his shop in central Baghdad.

Just a few months ago, George and other shop owners in the capital refused to sell alcohol for fear of attacks by Islamic militants.

Now, the owners of shops selling alcohol – most of whom are Christians – said they are trading openly as confidence in the capital’s security builds.

"I sensed that the security situation was better," said George, in his shop in the Karradah neighbourhood. "The amount of checkpoints in our area makes it difficult for armed groups to target us."

Alcohol was widely available for most of the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s rule, particularly in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra.

However, Saddam began closing bars and liquor stores in the early Nineties as he tried to enlist the support of the Arab governments which he had alienated by invading Kuwait in 1990.

After Saddam’s fall in 2003, alcohol shop owners were among the first to be targeted by militants intent on imposing Islamic law in Iraq. Some were murdered, while others were threatened or had their premises firebombed, prompting them to stop selling alcohol and even shut up shop altogether.

George, 33, whose family owns several shops in Baghdad, said they stopped selling alcoholic drinks after receiving a threat in 2006.

He explained that they had now decided to resume alcohol sales in the shop he runs "because it is close to a checkpoint that provides security for the area”.

According to George, his alcohol sales are rising steadily although he does not really keep track of them. He smiled as he said that his shop now remains opens well past sundown – a major achievement itself in a city that spent most of 2007 under strict curfew.

But in spite of the improved security in the city, shopkeepers remain concerned that militants could still attack if they sell alcohol.

Most of the shops that do trade in drinks in Baghdad are strategically located near checkpoints or in highly secure areas, such as those surrounding the Green Zone.

Shop owners in these areas told IWPR they trusted the government security forces to keep them out of harm’s way.

Ahmed Hassan, 23, an Iraqi officer at a checkpoint in al-Sadoon Street, where several drinks shops are located, said he and his colleagues were doing their best to provide stability for everyone.

"Things are getting better, even in areas far from checkpoints," he said. "We have not recorded any attacks on liquor stores in the last four months."

Shop owners are not required to apply for a special license to trade in alcohol, so there are no records of how many were targeted or closed down because of security fears, or indeed how many have reopened in Baghdad and in Iraq generally.

Some of those who stayed in business sold alcohol only to friends and trusted customers.

Mohammed Jasim, a 50-year-old teacher who drinks Grant's whisky, said that for the past two years, he has continued to buy alcohol in secret from those outlets which still stocked it.

The experience often made him nervous, he said, as he paid for a bottle of Scotch at a store on al-Sadoon Street, one of Baghdad’s main thoroughfares.

“We went through a lot before the security operation was launched,” he said, referring to the security crackdown in Baghdad which began in February 2007.

“I was always worried that militias would catch me when I was secretly buying liquor.”

Although the owners of other businesses located near alcohol shops say they are worried that these establishments could be targeted again, they see their re-emergence as a sign of progress in the capital.

"When the liquor stores opened, I felt like the street was reviving again, like the old days when clubs were open until late," said Ahmed Selah, a 45-year-old pastry owner on al-Sadoon Street.

The revival of the alcohol trade has helped other businesses flourish again, especially street vendors and shops selling “mezzeah” appetisers, such as houmus and “babaghanoush”.

Shakir Fadhil, who sells fried fava beans outside a liquor store on al-Arassat street, said his business is rising after a two-year slump.

“Thank God my business is improving,” he said. “There are customers constantly.”

Liquor store owner Sab Hassan, 37, said his customers are also increasing in number.

"I hope that security will improve to an extent where I can open a cowboy-themed bar,” he said. “That is my dream."

Hazim al-Shara is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.

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