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Iraq: Liquor Store Attacks May Underscore Rising Islamic Concerns

Islam proscribes the drinking of alcohol. But in Iraq, generally known as the Arab state that most likes to imbibe, a wide variety of beer and liquor is available and there are some 2,000 liquor stores in the capital alone. Recent attacks on Baghdad alcohol vendors have some residents speculating whether Shi'a activists are to blame.

Baghdad, 3 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In recent weeks, violence in the Iraqi capital has extended to its liquor stores. At least two stores have come under attack, and many more have been urged to close their businesses.

RFE/RL visited seven alcohol shops in the capital, but all of the owners refused to speak to the press, saying they do not want to draw attention to their shops. But they all admitted to feeling unsafe.

One owner agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. His business, a large liquor store in central Baghdad, is calm. But he says two shops nearby came under recent attack.

"A shop was attacked at five o'clock in the morning and it was hit with an RPG-7," he said. "There was some damage to the shop. But four days ago, the Al Hoot shop near Allikha Square was completely destroyed."

Similar attacks have taken place in Basra, Iraq's second city and a stronghold for the resurgent Shi'a Muslim majority, many of whom observe Islamic tradition and do not drink.

The shop owner says he believes the Baghdad attacks were likely the work of Muslim organizations.

"They want to prohibit alcohol and cinemas. They want to prohibit everything. They are Islamists."

The man says although his store has not yet been threatened, he is looking to take up another business until Iraq gets a new government and law and order is restored.

Many Iraqis like to drink, and Baghdad's nearly 2,000 alcohol shops sell everything from expensive Western imports to cheap Iraqi gin. In the poorest districts of the city, a bottle of locally distilled gin costs just $1. Street vendors also sell a range of beer and strong drinks, although Iraqis warn that such products can often be of poor quality.

In neighboring Iran, drinking a single bottle of beer is a punishable offense. In large part, the suspicion that Islamic groups are behind the attacks is based on the fact that many of their members spent many years in exile in Iran. This is true particularly of Shi'a groups like the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), or the Dawa Party.

But Iraq's Islamic groups and parties deny they have anything to do with the recent violence.

Ahmed Ali al-Khafji, a senior SCIRI official, condemned the attacks, saying "those who carry out the attacks [also] attack the future of the Iraqi people. He says other groups are to blame for the attacks.

"These people [who carried out the attacks] are only acting under the cover of religion, but they may be linked to the Ba'ath Party in one way or another. SCIRI and all the Islamic movements denounce these savage acts."

He accused the Ba'ath Party of trying to cast Islamic movements in an unpopular light by launching attacks like those on the liquor stores that would appear to be religiously motivated.

At the same time, Khafji refuses to elaborate on what SCIRI's alcohol policy would be if it had a chance to participate in the formation of a new government. There has been concern that the resurgence of Islamic movements following the fall of Saddam Hussein may mean the rollback of certain personal liberties in order to better observe Islamic codes.

Sheikh Abdul Jabbar Menhal represents Al-Hawza Al-Ilmia, a powerful Shi'a movement based in the holy city of Al-Najaf that now claims to control the sprawling Shi'a neighborhood of Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City.

Menhal says Hawza had nothing to do with the attacks on the shops.

"When we want people to do something, first of all, we preach to them. And as [far as] I know, there has been no fatwa about doing such things [like attacking liquor stores]."

Menhal says he hopes Iraq's alcohol shops will eventually be closed altogether. But for now, he says, there are more important issues to deal with -- like creating a new government and restoring law and order.