Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqis Drink to New-Found Freedom

Liquor sales in Baghdad rise, as threat from insurgents lessens following government crackdown.
By Basim al-Shara'a

Faisal Faris’ cart on al-Haifa Street looks like any other boiled beans stall, but it is actually a cover for a far more serious trading operation. A secret drawer hides Faris’ real commodity – alcohol.

Selling liquor in Iraq is a dangerous business. Threats by militants have forced many sellers to go underground and ply their wares from secret locations, or to use a different business as a front for their alcohol trading. As Faris told IWPR, “Islamic groups kill those who sell alcohol.”

But even though they still cannot openly peddle their goods, alcohol sellers say business has been improving in the last few months.

Faris said that Iraqis were buying more alcohol because the security situation in his area has improved, since Iraqi forces cracked down on the insurgents. Now that militant activity has died down, people are less afraid of being attacked if they are found to be drinking. He described how young Iraqis drink inside their cars because of a lack of other places to hang out. Americans, meanwhile, like to buy imported wines from him.

Khalid al-A'dhami, who owns a restaurant overlooking the Tigris River in the al-A'dhamiyya area, agrees that liquor sales have been improved by the safer environment. The restaurant is located near a National Guard base, which has also helped increase sales.

“Many people come to my restaurant to buy alcoholic drinks because the area is relatively safe," he said.

However, the process of selling liquor remains hazardous. Faris knows that he could be beheaded by insurgents, or killed in an explosion, but says he no longer cares about the risks involved. Although he graduated last year from the Technical Medical Institute, Faris said he had no choice but to enter into black-market trading. “I knocked on many doors to get a job, but didn’t get anywhere,” he said.

“I have begun not to care about death. What matters is that my family and I are able to survive.”

Although most traditional liquor stores in Baghdad have disappeared, businesses selling alcohol do still openly exist in the Karrada Mariam area near the Green Zone, which is considered to be relatively safe because of the heavy presence of Iraqi and American security forces.

Sabah Ragheed, who owns a liquor store in Karrada Mariam, said he has never been threatened by insurgents. He added that his customer base has increased to include more young people, especially women.

“The situation hasn’t changed for me,” he said. “I sell alcohol freely without any pressure, just as I did when we were living in the Saddam era."

Police Commissioner Mushtaq Izzat acknowledges there is not much that Iraqi security forces can do to stop insurgents who threaten or murder liquor storeowners.

"If they are not killed today, they will be killed tomorrow because we can't protect them,” he said.

Amir Ja'far, a retired civil servant, said he thinks alcohol sales have increased because people want to escape the dismal reality of living in today’s Iraq.

But Omer Ahmed, a law student at the University of Baghdad, disagrees. He and his friends meet every two days to drink alcohol. “The drinking boom is a healthy phenomenon because it confirms that life has partially returned to Baghdad,” he said.

Hazim al-Shara'a is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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