BAGHDAD, (AP) – The three men glanced left and right before cautiously entering a liquor store on Saadoun Street, one of two areas where alcohol is publicly sold in the Iraqi capital. Inside, they pointed to a bottle of champagne.
“Give me a box of those,” one said.
Selling and drinking alcohol is still legal in Iraq, but since the rise of religious parties in this predominantly Muslim country, the trade has come under severe pressure. Aside from legal restrictions, many liquor shops have been bombed in the past four years.
Some who dared sell alcohol from their homes have been killed by religious militias, which use fear and intimidation to keep liquor out of areas they control.
Still, that has not deterred all traders or customers.
“We’re busy these few days,” said Yasser, a clerk at the Saadoun Street store, who refused to give his full name for security reasons. “People are buying big amounts of alcohol because Ramadan is coming,” referring to the Muslim holy month of fasting that began this week.
All liquor stores are closed during Ramadan, a measure that has been in force since before Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in April 2003.
“Usually the buyers take bottles, but now they buy boxes,” said Naim, a clerk who refused to give his full name out of fear for his safety. “They want to make sure they have enough until the end of the month. We are selling a lot of beers and whiskey.”
Iraq’s alcohol business faced various pressures long before the U.S.-led invasion.
For decades, Baghdad’s nightclubs and bars by the Tigris river were famous throughout the Middle East for grilled fish, alcohol and scantily clad belly dancers.
Similar clubs in the southern city of Basra used to attract thousands of Kuwaitis who drove to the Iraqi city for fun and drinks.
But in 1993, Saddam, reeling from his loss in the 1991 Gulf War, launched a religious campaign that included a ban on public consumption of alcohol, closing nightclubs, combatting prostitution and giving religious lessons to the public, including those in his secular Baath party.
Saddam heavily restricted and regulated alcohol sales. Nightclubs were turned into restaurants but some still sold alcohol to their clients secretly.
Soon after Saddam’s fall, the liquor business boomed. Shops began openly selling alcohol and vendors were seen in some of Baghdad’s streets hawking imported beer or whiskey.
All that came to an end as religious parties solidified their hold on power.
Today, there are only two areas in Baghdad where alcohol is legally sold: near the Baghdad Hotel in the central part of the capital along Saadoun Street and in the Karradit Mariam area just outside the Green Zone that houses offices of the Iraqi prime minister and president as well as the U.S. Embassy.
Most of the shops are run by Iraq’s minority Christians or Yazidis, followers of an ancient religion that does not forbid alcohol.
Naim, a Yazidi, said the most popular drink is Arak, an anise or dates flavored liquor which is produced in Iraq and which sells for as little as $2.40 a bottle.
The most expensive brand he sells is Johnny Walker Black Label whisky for $28 a bottle.
At another shop, a Christian employee who refused to give his name, saying he has been receiving threats for months, said his cheapest brand is an Indian-made whiskey that sells for $2 for a fifth.
“This is usually bought by homeless people who live in the streets,” the man said.
He said most of his clientele is Muslim.
“Christians and Yazidis sell, and Muslims drink,” he said.