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Baghdad booze attacks: Turf war or vice squads?

BAGHDAD: Andre, an Iraqi Christian whose shop was firebombed a few weeks ago, sits at the shop in the Bataween district of the capital on Dec 5, 2020. – AFP

BAGHDAD: Escalating attacks on the Iraqi capital’s few liquor stores have terrified shop-owners who fear hardline Islamists are flexing their muscle against alcohol consumption. But there may be a bigger story behind the Baghdad booze bombings, as some suspect turf wars for control of the lucrative niche trade in the Muslim majority country.

Over the past two months, at least 14 alcohol shops across the city have been firebombed in the middle of the night or just before dawn, with three simultaneous attacks in different districts Monday night alone. Most businesses are run by Christians or Yazidis, minorities who for decades have been granted the licenses required to sell alcohol in broadly conservative Iraq.

Andre, an Iraqi Christian, said his shop was firebombed a few weeks ago by two people on a motorcycle just before dawn, according to the store’s security camera footage. He said it had cost him thousands of dollars to replace the lost merchandise and repair the shop. “These groups want the last of the Christians to leave the country. They’re targeting us,” Andre told AFP, as his brother stacked new bottles of whisky on restored shelves.

He blamed security forces for negligence, saying a police patrol that had been deployed nearby left its post for hours, which gave the attackers a window of opportunity. “Why doesn’t the government arrest them?” Andre asked angrily, saying he had even provided authorities with the license plate number of the attacking vehicle from their CCTV footage. The attackers had “time to place the explosives, take pictures before and after and publish them on Facebook”, he said. “You really can’t pursue these guys?”

Another business owner, speaking on condition of anonymity in fear of reprisal attacks, said it was an attempt to crush the shrinking community of Iraqi secularists. “We are all that’s left of a liberal lifestyle. There are attempts to kill this ancient side of Baghdad – if they win, Baghdad will have lost its liberal side,” he said.

In recent weeks, an array of Islamist groups have ramped up their rhetoric against Baghdad’s liquor stores and other establishments that they insist are violating religious edicts against drinking and other trades considered sinful. One such group, “Rubu Allah” or “God’s gang,” claimed responsibility for raiding a massage parlor in the heart of Baghdad and physically assaulting the women inside. Another group calling itself “Ahl al-Qura” or “The Village People”, said it had bombed an underground nightclub.

Despite being formed earlier this year, these groups are already well-known for claiming rocket attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad, attacking a TV station broadcasting cheerful music during a religious holiday and setting the offices of a Kurdish party alight. While the groups claim to have no formal political link, those protesting or storming establishment have carried the flag of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a state-sponsored network of armed groups, many of which have close ties to Iran.

Others say it’s money, not morality, that is behind the recent spate of attacks on liquor stores. For years, their owners have paid protection fees to armed Islamist groups to guarantee they can keep selling. “The top dogs of these groups don’t get involved in the extortion but smaller figures are individually extracting protection money,” said a senior member of one such group. He even accused state security forces of being involved, asking for thousands of dollars a month to protect a shop.

Some Christian and Yazidi shop-owners pointed to new competition from Muslim businessmen seeking a stake in the spirits market without legal licenses. Those newer establishments, the minority store-owners pointed out to AFP, had not been targeted by bomb attacks. Iraqi federal police and even army troops have deployed in force along the main streets hosting the liquor stores, including the riverside road of Abu Nuwas.

Their presence is meant to reassure shop-owners, but they have also been shutting stores, nightclubs and massage parlors that don’t have operating licenses. At least 91 unlicensed alcohol shops and nightclubs have been shut in the last two months, a statement by Iraq’s intelligence agencies said. Businessmen in the neighborhood fear the wave of attacks could take Baghdad back to bloodier days, when multiple roadside bombs would rock the capital each day. “I live in a state of constant fear,” said Saad Mohammad, who operates a grocery store near several liquor shops. “Every minute, I think that there will be an explosion that will destroy everything.” – AFP

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