Unexpected raids on Baghdad’s bars, as well as beaten customers, shocked locals last week. But it’s not just drinkers who are upset. Activists say it’s the government’s latest plan to curb personal freedoms while MPs pondering re-election in the mainly-Muslim nation haven’t said a word.
Last week, government security forces raided a number of clubs, bars and other establishments in Baghdad without warning, closing many of them by force that same night. The clubs seem to have been targeted both because they were selling alcohol and because they hosted known intellectual cliques. As a result, the attack has raised serious fears of an attack on personal freedoms and concerns that Islamic parties are trying impose their religious ideology on other Iraqis.
Although Iraq is a mainly Muslim nation and Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, there are also diverse minorities in Iraq and many of these allow alcohol drinks; often members of these groups will be the ones that run bars or liquor stores.
And on September 4, a number of clubs, bars and restaurants in the affluent Baghdad neighbourhoods of Karrada and Arasat were raided. Many of the patrons on the night – and this included members of the security forces and other officials – were injured or beaten as a result.
One eyewitness told NIQASH that the raiders had been violent. “They were brutal,” he said. “They entered and told us all to get out immediately. They then went around smashing everything up, including tables and chairs. And then those who were guarding the entrance started beating the people who were trying to leave with sticks and their rifle butts.”
Ahmed al-Utabi, a well-known poet, was at the Writer’s Union Club when it was stormed by security forces. “At first, we thought there was a bomb or an explosive device inside the club and that was why the security forces asked us to leave,” al-Utabi said. “Then we were really surprised to see them smashing everything up inside the club.”
Since 2003, after the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the proprietors of establishments selling alcohol have been under attack.
In the 1970s and 1980s Iraq did have alcohol fuelled nightlife but Hussein’s religious campaigns ended this to a great extent in the 1990s. Then after his regime ended in 2003, there was a small resurgence in alcohol sales but this too was brought to end by the religious nature of Iraqi society. And even today alcohol sellers and club proprietors are most certainly in danger of attack or bombing by extremist religious militias in several Iraqi cities, including Baghdad.
However this is one of the first times that government forces have raided social clubs and bars in this way.
In late 2011 the local government, Baghdad’s council, made the decision to close all the liquor stores in Baghdad. But that lasted only a short time; it caused widespread protests, as one of the establishments targeted was the Writer’s Union Club, frequented by local intellectuals and media.
However this time, the council says it knew nothing about last week’s raids.
“Despite the fact that we should have been informed of any moves by the capital’s security forces, the council knows nothing about these attacks,” council member, Mohammed al-Rubaie, told NIQASH. “But the incident is really unfortunate. It gives a negative signal about personal freedoms in this country,” he agreed. “It may also be a sign that certain components of Iraqi society are being targeted – maybe Iraq’s Christians, because it’s true that they are mostly the owners or licensees of these places.”
Local man Rami Jabbar was sitting in one club when the attack took place.
“Members of the security forces who raided the place were wearing the uniform of the federal police,” Jabbar told NIQASH. “Federal forces are definitely responsible for the attack, not the local police.”
Meanwhile the federal government is remaining tight lipped about the incident. Leaks from inside the government put the blame on one senior security official in the Ministry of Interior, Farouk al-Araji, for the raids. It’s been suggested that the security men belonged to the forces he commands, who also provide security for government zones.
The raids were certainly well organised. All of the clubs do actually have valid licenses to serve alcohol but the security officers raided them all at the same time, confiscating the drinks inside.
One of the club owners, who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, told NIQASH that it was actually quite ironic because many of the clubs’ regular patrons are high ranking government officials as well as army or security officers.
“In fact, there was a high ranking army official in the club at the time, the security forces stormed in,” he said. “He tried to talk to them and he told them who he was. But they didn’t care and they started beating him anyway.”
There did seem to be some religious motive behind the attacks, Sami Jirjis, a Christian who works one of the bars, told NIQASH.
“The security forces attacked Hussein al-Basri, a well-known singer, even though he was only trying to talk to them and to ease the tension,” Jirjis added. “Then afterwards, security forces started attacking the Christians, insulting them and damaging pictures and religious symbols that were hung on the walls.”
Only a few hours after the raids, Ali al-Allaq, the head of the Iraqi Parliament’s Religious Endowments Committee, commented that his committee was looking into the possibility of enacting a law that “combats the sales of alcoholic drinks”.
And although some might say the incident only involved a few bars and nightclubs, civil society activists see it as an important incident. They are associating it with efforts they believe the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is making to suppress personal freedoms and human rights in Iraq, under the guise of the protection of the Islamic religion.
“The authorities are seeking to restrict personal freedoms under the pretext of Islam and they are intimidating people and creating an atmosphere of fear by their use of force,” Ziad al-Ujaili, head of the Media Freedom Monitor organization in Baghdad, argued.
Several other civil and human rights organisations, including the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization and the Human Rights Commission, expressed similar sentiments.
Interestingly there was not much response from local politicians - the only overt exception was Ayed Allawi, former prime Minister and head of the main opposition group, the Iraqiya bloc.
Speaking off the record, a number of MPs told NIQASH that the topic was a more complex one than it appeared to be. Observers suggest that if politicians do speak out about the raids, they won’t be seen as supporting human rights or freedom of speech. Rather they’ll be accused of being immoral and supporting those who work against the Islamic religion. In a country that is mostly Muslim, and with a general election coming up, this would be a serious problem when it came to their re-election.
Besides the general outcry against the closing of the bars and clubs, there have been other, perhaps unforeseen, consequences. Liquor prices in Baghdad have tripled during the week and now drinkers – mostly young Iraqis – have ended up taking a tipple on the street or while sitting in parked cars.