Polarizing developments, decried as power abuse by one party to the discord and welcomed as a reinstatement of genuine Muslim values by the other, took place in Baghdad in early September. Considerable government forces – the police, the security service, and, in some cases, army units - serially raided and closed the city's restaurants, night clubs, and likewise joints. Those of the owners who attempted to defend their rights were physically abused on site and taken to police departments for further intimidation, with their restaurants and clubs hammered to additionally demonstrate that resistance was counterproductive. The raiders cited the administration's orders but, in all cases, were unable to show court warrants.
The raids affected a large part of the population in the city of several millions, where people try to live normal lives regardless of the problems and risks pervasive in today's Iraq. It was clear from the outset that slapping a ban on fairly ordinary urban activities and ignoring the preferences of many of the residents who were offered to pray five times daily as an alternative – a practice expected to meet with limited acceptance in a country which is not uniformly Muslim – had to prompt an outcry. Article 37 of the Iraqi constitution establishes that the government must shield citizens from all forms of ideological, political, or religious coercion. The Iraqi List opposition block headed by former premier Allawi released a statement slamming the administration over the measures taken, criticizing them as irresponsible, restrictive, and profoundly divisive.
Baghdad's residents predictably took to protests – the not-so-distant past when the city used to be the capital of a secular state where a host of religious groups coexisted lightheartedly and diverse lifestyles were accommodated never quite sank into oblivion. In the pre-war epoch, Baghdad boasted a fairly rich cultural scene comprising tens of museums, movie theaters, exhibitions, and clubs, and, it must be noted, limitations on alcohol sales were imposed citywide exclusively during Ramadan. The middle and senior-aged urban dwellers were joined by the younger residents of Baghdad whose grievances list, on top of the inconveniences everybody else had to share, included the unexplainable closing of banquet halls used to celebrate weddings.
Eventually the administration had to present some sort of rationale for the offensive launched, but sounded fairly unconvincing as it did so. A curious press release by the Iraqi armed forces supreme commander was made available to the public on September 6. The document was unsigned, but the fact that the post is held in a parallel mode by the Iraqi premier N. Al Maliki is common knowledge. The text read:
“The recent steps to close clubs and night-time restaurants in Baghdad were taken based on court rulings in response to citizens' complaints about the disturbances caused by the joints sited in residential areas which functioned without licenses and with disregard for traditions and common values. Since the joints started to be a source of major unrest and infringements upon people's rights, the law enforcement agencies responsible for maintaining legal order and security had to take action in line with the court rulings, and acted in a highly professional and disciplined manner. The supreme command is monitoring the situation closely and announces that the media accounts of violations, including the pertinent photos and videos, were parts of a smear campaign aimed at discrediting the security forces. If facts of abuse are confirmed, the perpetrations will be severely punished, since abusive conduct does not agree with the traditions and values of the Iraqi security which honestly serves and protects the citizens. Owners of the joints closed should request from the tourism committee the licenses which, by law, they are required to obtain to reopen”.
The same day, the Baghdad provincial council security committee broke the news that the banquet halls used under the former regime to celebrate weddings had degenerated into hotbeds of debauchery attracting suspicious individuals. The committee head Abdul-Kareem al-Zarb brushed off the charges that the banquet halls were closed indiscriminately, with the operations of those having the due licenses similarly suspended, and claimed that the titles in the papers and on building facades did not match in the cases referred to. The argument must have seemed week even to its authors, considering that the committee urged the residents of Baghdad to collect signatures under petitions to crack down on night clubs and other “suspicious” spots. Abdul al Zarb said the petitions would be forwarded to courts to initiate the corresponding legal procedures.
Local commentators remark in the meantime that al Maliki attended the 16th Session of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran and, before leaving for home, met on the sidelines of the forum with a number of prominent Shia clerics, among them – Ayatollah M. Shahroudi.
Supposedly, those expressed bitter disapproval of Baghdad's and other Iraqi cities' hosting night clubs and liquor stores. The Ayatollah bluntly said Baghdad grew into one total cafe, an arrangement impossible to reconcile with the Muslim law. The meeting took place in late August, and the purges in Baghdad followed early in September.
Some Iraqi media reported on September 8, quoting “well-informed” sources, that the sealing of night-time joints in Baghdad was the first step on the agenda intended to transform Iraq into a Muslim state. The corresponding plan was put together over four years ago, and since the time the Iraqi government waited for an opportune moment to put it into practice. Evidently, the time has come and, as the media warn, total prohibition and the tightening of the punishment for publicly neglecting the Ramadan prescriptions, along with the introduction of the rigorous Islamic dress code, can be expected in the nearest future.
The projections look realistic given that, for example, women are already banned from public places unless their heads are covered. As for the prohibition, it is de facto in effect across most of Iraq, as in Basra, and those who do deal alcohol there literally play with fire. Stores selling alcohol got burned down and their owners – killed in Iraq quite routinely over the past several years.
The situation appears to be somewhat grotesque if you take into account that Iraqi premier Al Maliki both leads the Islamic Dawa Party and presides over the State of Law political bloc, and imposing the Sharia laws is a stated priority of the terrorist organization called the Islamic State of Iraq…