By Muhanad Mohammed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Men armed with steel pipes last week raided a Christian social club and vandalized liquor shops in Baghdad, raising fears of a creeping fundamentalism as Iraq’s new government gets to work.
Concerns have been stoked by the inclusion in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s new government of a Shi’ite militia that once sought to impose strict Islamic laws and by the return from self-imposed exile of its leader, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
An official with the Baghdad provincial council, controlled primarily by Maliki’s Dawa party, denied reports it was behind the raids on the club, which has a bar, and on alcohol shops, most of which close down for part of the Muslim holy month of Muharram.
A central government spokesman also condemned the raids.
“Our state is moderate and upholds the rights of everybody. Everyone has a right to his opinion, his religion and his personal freedoms,” said Ali Moussawi, a media adviser for Maliki.
But witnesses said police cars blocked off a street while a squad of men stormed into the Ashurbanipal cultural society and that police officers tried to get into another well-known club saying they were investigating the sale of alcohol.
Alcohol sales have become an impromptu barometer of Iraq’s direction since the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and the rise to political power of the Shi’ite majority.
While Saddam often closed the taps to satisfy the demands of religious clerics, critics say new attempts to crack down on alcohol shops are a warning that Iraq could go the way of neighboring Shi’ite Iran, and install a religious theocracy.
The raid on the Ashurbanipal club, which has a bar in one building, occurred last Thursday, said its head Jenan Sleiwa.
Eight men in civilian clothes, carrying pistols and steel pipes, broke through the doors and trashed furniture, glass and books in a library. They stole computers and mobile phones, and spent an hour trying to crack open a safe, she said.
“Regrettably, they carried out their attack under governmental cover and with protection of police,” said Sleiwa.
Sharief Aso, a club member who said he was briefly detained and taken away to a police station by the attackers, said he heard them say: “‘We live in an Islamic state. Organizations like this must not exist in Iraq. We will teach you a lesson’.”
Local merchants said their alcohol stores in the same area of the capital were also attacked. The assailants smashed all the bottles they could find and stole money.
“I will be forced to leave my country and go back to the Netherlands,” said Abu Kamiran, a merchant who returned to Iraq a few years ago to invest in its future. He owns six shops, three of which were attacked.
Saddam-era rules forbid Muslims from selling alcohol but non-Muslims can do so if licensed. Most alcohol shops in Iraq are owned and run by minority Christians or Yazidis.
The tourism commission, which manages the license scheme, has not renewed any permits, however. This has created ambiguity about the legality of alcohol shops and an opportunity for devout officials to make a mark.
Colonel Jabbar Ali Hamed, the chief of the local police in the part of Baghdad where the raids occurred, said the raiders were from the Baghdad provincial council and police had been ordered to assist them in enforcing laws against alcohol sales.
“Our duty was to protect them,” he said.
Sabar Ali, the chairman of the legal committee of the council and a member of Sadr’s movement, said the council had ordered the closure of unlicensed alcohol shops but condemned the violence against the cultural association and the shops.
“We will open an investigation into the attack. We want to make sure the security apparatus is not misused in such terrorist acts,” he said. “This is clearly a plot by terrorist groups to target Christians and force them to leave.”
(Writing by Muhanad Mohammed; Editing by Michael Christie)