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Iraqi Closures Cut Short Nightlife Revival

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Authorities have ordered the closure of all Baghdad nightclubs and dozens of shops selling alcohol, concerned the venues were undermining "public morals," the city's governor has said.

A special police force closed 95 unlicensed clubs and 42 liquor stores since the start of November after neighbors complained of underage drinking, public drunkenness and lewd advertising, Governor Salah Abdul-Razzaq said in an interview.

No nightclubs in the Iraqi capital have a license, he said.

The closures threaten to cut short a brief revival in Baghdad's once-vibrant nightlife as residents began to enjoy some of the activities they were forced to abandon amid the sectarian violence unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

It was unclear who had ordered the raids. Abdul-Razzaq said the move had cabinet approval, but government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh denied Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was involved.

"This issue concerns the province of Baghdad and is not a federal issue," Dabbagh said.

Maliki's Dawa Party has Shi'ite Islamist roots but has sought to broaden its base to include secularists, nationalists, and minorities as it seeks reelection in a poll next year.

Mainly Muslim Iraq is a conservative society, where many women cover their hair and bodies and most men and women eschew alcohol, which is proscribed under Islamic law.

Belly Dancers And Booze

The reopening of Baghdad's nightclubs, which showcased belly dancers and served alcohol, in the last year was heralded as a step toward normal city life, and police said at the time Maliki's government had instructed them to turn a blind eye.

At the height of Iraq's sectarian war, militias executed people they believed violated Islamic laws and suicide bombers targeted public spaces to kill dozens of people at a time.

At least 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq since 2003.

But violence has ebbed in recent months, encouraging Baghdadis to become more social. The Health Ministry in November reported the lowest monthly death toll since the U.S. invasion.

The rowdy nightclubs that opened over the last year evoked the Baghdad of the 1970s and 1980s, when a more permissive climate allowed boozy establishments with provocative dancers.

In the 1990s, late dictator Saddam Hussein began shutting down bars and clubs, part of a curtailing of freedoms as he tightened his grip on power and tapped into Islamist sentiment.

It was unclear whether all nightclubs had closed yet as many are located in unregistered venues.

Anyone caught opening a shop or bar without proper permits faces a fine and six-month jail sentence, Abdul-Razzaq said.

Iraq's stance on alcohol is still relatively liberal compared to its neighbors Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where possession of alcohol is banned.