Iraq progress: sales of liquor

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Hazim al-Shara
BAGHDAD — Business is once again brisk at Mazin George’s shop in central Baghdad. Until a few months ago, he was afraid that he would be a target for insurgents if he opened his store.

But now, as security in the capital slowly builds day by day, George and others involved in the same business (mostly Christians) have the confidence to resume selling a product that historically is in great demand, especially in times of stress: alcohol.

“I sensed that the security situation was better,” said George, in his shop in the Karradah neighborhood as he bagged whiskey and beer for a waiting customer. “The number of checkpoints in our area makes it difficult for armed groups to target us.”

For most of the time Saddam Hussein was in power, alcohol was widely available in the country, especially in the major cities.

But during the 1990s, as Saddam looked to regain the support of the neighboring Arab governments he had alienated by his invasion of Kuwait, the former dictator made a show of closing down many of the country’s bars and liquor stores.

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 shop owners were murdered, while others were threatened or had their premises firebombed. Many switched to selling other goods; some shut down their stores completely.

Because no license is required to sell alcohol in Iraq, no one knows how many liquor shops actually existed in the country. Both store owners and their customers said they lived in fear that they would be caught by the militias. Many shop owners would only sell alcohol to friends or trusted customers.

Mohammed Jasim, a whisky drinker, said he was always worried that his purchases would be discovered by the militias.

“We went through a lot before the security operation was launched,” he said. “I was always worried that militias would catch me when I was secretly buying liquor.”

George, 33, whose family owns several shops in Baghdad, said they stopped selling alcohol after receiving a threat in 2006. Today, George says, business is once again booming, although he declined to provide sales figures. He did note, however, that his store remains open well past sundown — no small achievement in a city that spent much of last year under strict curfew.

George is one of the lucky ones: His store is located in a heavily patrolled area. Other liquor store owners whose shops are located in less secure areas say they still worry they could become targets of militants who oppose the sale of alcohol.

Ahmed Hassan, an Iraqi officer manning a checkpoint on al-Sadoon Street, where shops that sell alcohol are located, said he and his colleagues are doing all they can to provide security.

“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.”

The resumption of the public sale of alcohol is seen by many as a sure sign of progress in the capital. And merchants near liquor stores, who once worried about their proximity, now cheer their re-emergence.

“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, 45, a pastry shop owner. “There are customers constantly,” commented Shakir Fadhil, who sells fried fava beans outside a liquor store on al-Arassat Street.

As liquor store owner Sab Hassan watches the number of his customers steadily increase, he has high hopes for the future.

“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 a reporter in Iraq who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. (Distributed by MCT)