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Raid On Nightclubs Raises Fears Of Islamic State

Liquor licenses in Baghdad are only given only given to Christians or members of other non-Islamic sects although patrons can be from all backgrounds
Liquor licenses in Baghdad are only given only given to Christians or members of other non-Islamic sects although patrons can be from all backgrounds
Customers playing bingo in a restaurant and intellectuals in a cinema club don't usually expect to be beaten up by Baghdad's security forces.

But because alcohol was served in the establishments that is exactly what happened to them.

On September 4, security forces raided 10 venues ranging from alcohol stores to bars to clubs. Behind them, they left smashed bottles, bruised bodies, and new fears Iraq could be heading toward an Islamic state.

The raids, some of the most violent in recent years, targeted places the soldiers claimed were selling liquor illegally. But the owners say they have licenses and, in some cases, the establishments were well-known meeting places for Iraqi intellectuals.

One is the Cinema Club, affiliated with the official Iraqi Union of Writers. There, security forces burst in at 8 p.m. local time, shouting curses and giving the 300 people inside to the count of 10 to get to the door.

Abdul Rida Shamari, an elderly man, suffered a broken leg as the guests panicked.

"My leg was fractured," he told RFE/RL. "They suddenly entered like madmen, about 40 armed men. We didn't know at first if they were terrorists or what. They beat us with rifles, cables, and electric prods, as if they were fighting enemies. But all of the guests in the Cinema Club are respected people and intellectuals."

The raids occurred in two neighboring areas of Baghdad with mixed Muslim and Christian populations: Karrada and Arasat. Under Iraqi law, licenses for selling liquor in stores or clubs are only given to Christians or members of other sects considered outside Islam, though the guests can be -- and often are -- of all backgrounds.

Sa'ad Yassen is from the Yazidi sect, which fuses traditional Kurdish, Zoroastrian, and Islamic Sufi beliefs.

'Get An Honest Job!'

According to him, some 150 people were playing bingo in his garden restaurant when the September 4 raid took place.

"We have been licensed to operate this club since 2009," he said. "Because we are Yazidis, we are officially allowed to have such an establishment [which serves alcohol]. The security forces came in and destroyed everything, beat us, and beat our employees. There were about 25 armed soldiers and they pushed the guests out and beat them with rifle butts and pistols."

He claims the soldiers also ordered him to get an "honest" job rather than sell alcohol.

Who the soldiers were remains a mystery. Some security officials have told the media privately that they were from the elite force commanded by the top security official in Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's office, General Faruq al-Araji.

The government has made no public comment on the operation. Local authorities told Radio Free Iraq privately that the operation targeted illegal businesses and was conducted in a professional manner.

Baghdad stores selling liquor are occasional targets of police crackdowns, as well as attacks by fundamentalist militiamen and bombings by militant groups such as Al-Qaeda.

But the alleged involvement of elite troops in the September 4 action gives it political significance. The Iraqi government is dominated by Shi'ite religious parties which promote strict interpretations of Islamic values, including prohibitions on alcohol.

Some observers see the raids as part of growing pressure by the parties to move Iraq toward an Islamic state, irrespective of current laws.

No Constitutional Clarity

Shaikh Khaled Al-Mulla, a leading Sunni cleric, suggested the raids -- which were not by court order -- resembled those conducted by morality police in some other countries:

"We are not an Islamic state," he said. "The system of Iraq does not stand on a purely Islamic foundation. We have Islamic parties and there is a majority of Muslims, but there are also components of the population that are minorities who must be respected. The way the raids were done, using the same methods common in certain other countries, is not acceptable."

In both neighboring Iran and Saudi Arabia, the sale of alcohol is illegal and morality police raid parties at will.

But if there is pressure to more strictly enforce Islamic values in Iraq, countering it may not be easy. One reason is ambiguity in Iraq's own constitution over what kind of state Iraq should be.

"The second article of the constitution says it is not allowed to create laws that are not in accordance with the spirit of Shari'a [Islamic law]," says Shaikh Abdul Hassan Al-Furati, a leading Shi'ite cleric. "At the same time, it is not permissible to create laws that violate human rights and democratic values. We have to solve this contradiction."

Al-Furati, who proposes creating a committee of experts in Civil Law and Shari'a to address the problem, warns that until this ambiguity in the constitution is resolved the door remains wide open for powers to interpret the law as they wish.

Written by Charles Recknagel, based on reporting by Radio Free Iraq's Hazim al-Shara in Baghdad and Moyad al-Haidari and Samira Ali Mandi in Prague.

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