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Minority Businesses Fear Alcohol Bans

Federal authorities lift prohibition, but Baghdad officials warn sales could be restricted in future.
By Abeer Mohammed, Hazim al-Sharaa
  • Iraq's Christians and Yezidis - the only groups permitted to sell alcohol in Iraq - say Baghdad's crackdown on alcohol shops dealt them an economic blow and deepened uncertainty about their future. (Photo: Hazim al-Sharaa/IWPR)
    Iraq's Christians and Yezidis - the only groups permitted to sell alcohol in Iraq - say Baghdad's crackdown on alcohol shops dealt them an economic blow and deepened uncertainty about their future. (Photo: Hazim al-Sharaa/IWPR)

Shawqi Bebo stands in his newly-reopened alcohol shop, holding a big bottle of Chivas whisky in one hand and a flask in the other. He’s relieved he’s back in business, but his future appears precarious.

Although the federal authorities lifted a four-month ban on the sale of alcohol last week, the sanction created a climate of economic uncertainty among Iraq's Christian and Yezidi minority communities, many of whom had spent years building up their trade.

The financial damage was substantial - in Bebo's case, the closure cost him more than 40,000 US dollars, revenue he says he will never regain.

"It is impossible to make the money back in such an unstable situation," Bebo, a 40-year-old Yezidi, said. "I'm standing in my store now, but I could be thrown into jail at any moment. It is impossible to predict what will happen in Iraq."

Under Iraqi law, only Christians and Yezidis can sell alcohol, and the sales ban was a huge financial blow for the minority communities which have sold and imported alcohol for generations. Some say that unpredictable economic and security situation in Iraq is driving them to emigrate.

"The government decision to close alcohol stores and bars hurt those who work in the industry. They were mostly Christians, and dozens of Christian breadwinners [were] unemployed," Wiliam Warda, the head of the Hamorabi Organisation for Human Rights, said.

"They have no other choice except to look for work outside of Baghdad and outside of Iraq."

Experts estimate religious minorities - including Christians, Yezidis and Sabaeans - make up roughly four to five per cent of Iraq's population. Violence and extremism has driven hundreds of thousands out of the country in recent years. According to the US Commission on Religious Minorities, half of Iraq's estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million Christians have emigrated since 2003.

Baghdad's provincial council began to shut down bars, nightclubs and shops selling alcohol in November 2010, in a crack down on unlicensed premises, which was reinforced by invoking a Baath-era decree banning alcohol sales. But critics say the move had less to do with business violations than growing Islamic influence in the country, once one of the region's more secular nations. The authorities have declined to comment on the claim.

The ban, which was agreed by the provincial and federal authorities, became so unpopular that its removal was amongst the demands of demonstrators in Baghdad protesting against government ineptitude and corruption in February.

Bebo says he himself marched with a banner that read, "Baghdad will not be another Kandahar."

In the wake of last week’s decision to allow liquor stores to reopen, Abdul Kareem Therb, a Baghdad provincial council member, said that the local authorities had not ruled out closing them down in the future, but for now had decided to acquiesce to popular feeling.

"Some voices called for [the lifting of the ban on alcohol sales], and we should meet people's demands," he said.

In the past, Baghdad's liquor stores have been intermittently shut down by the government or forced to close because of extremist threats. But the most recent closure was the longest and most comprehensive ban on alcohol sales in the capital since the Baath regime was ousted in 2003.

While the authorities claimed the clampdown targeted unlicensed outlets, nearly every alcohol shop in Baghdad operates without one due to confusion over which government body is responsible for granting businesses permission to sell liquor: the tourism ministry or the Baghdad provincial council.

The tourism ministry claims the provincial council must approve all licenses for alcohol sales. The provincial council, which is run by Islamists, maintains that it does not have the authority to issue licenses - but can close down unlicensed shops.

The haphazard enforcement of the laws, and the fact that officials have not discussed amending them, leaves minority-owned alcohol shops vulnerable to future closures.

"There is no guarantee that it will not happen again," said Sara, 41, a Christian resident of Baghdad.

Her husband lost his job as a clerk at a liquor store during the closure, slashing the family's income by half, to about 420 dollars a month. She says it was especially difficult during winter when they could hardly afford food and rent, let alone kerosene for their small heater.

The situation has become so bad that Sara and her family have applied for asylum in America.

"We hope we'll get approved as soon as possible," she said.

While the Baghdad authorities have yielded to pressure to re-open the liquor stores, they stopped short of guaranteeing that they won’t shut them down again.

"Our main concern now is to meet demonstrators' demands," Therb said.

When asked to respond to liquor store owners' concerns, he said, "They can change their business or start another trade."

But, for many, this is not a realistic option.

"We don't have any other profession," Bebo said. "We inherited this occupation from our fathers, and we can't change that."

Bebo studied a line of bottles resting on a dusty shelf in his shop, contemplating what his future holds if the government closes his shop again.

"I will have no other choice but to leave Iraq and look for another home," he said.

Abeer Mohammed is IWPR Iraq's senior local editor and Hazim al-Sharaa is an editorial staffer. They are based in Baghdad.

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