BAGHDAD (Reuters) - After living in fear for months, liquor store owners in Baghdad are proudly displaying everything from Iraqi Asriya Arak to Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky, a sign that peace and stability may return.
Bombings, shootings and hand grenade attacks by suspected Muslim militants forced many alcohol salesmen to shut down but a security crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi forces have made it possible for them to re-open along one of the capital’s busiest streets.
“We are not that worried now because security has improved,” said Samir Khaled, an employee of a shop that was shaken by a car bomb in December which killed three people in one of the capital’s most heavily protected areas. It reopened a month ago.
Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol.
Violence has fallen to its lowest level in more than four years, according to figures released by the U.S. military at the weekend. Iraqi and U.S. officials say they have al Qaeda in Iraq, blamed for the worst bombings in Baghdad, on the run.
That may offer an opportunity for enterprising liquor store owners, mostly members of the Yazidi religious sect, to generate business in Iraq, where a drink can offer an escape from suicide bombings, shootings and kidnappings.
The odds are stacked against them and Christians, the other minority involved in the alcohol trade.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim militants have violently imposed their fundamentalist will in Iraq’s chaos.
Yazidis, a pre-Islamic Kurdish sect who live mainly in northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey, have had it bad enough. Many Iraqis call them devil and fire worshippers.
Some 800 were killed and wounded in a multiple suicide bombing in northern Iraq last year, the worst such attack seen in Iraq.
Yazidis who run the alcohol shops said they fled from their traditional homes around Mosul to try to make a living in Baghdad after receiving death threats.
They hope things are improving and they won’t have to keep moving.
Khidr Karim left his shop in Baghdad’s Mansour district after a hand grenade was hurled into his shop, killing a colleague and sending shrapnel into his uncle’s stomach.
Now he is trying his fortunes on Saadoun street, home to most alcohol shops.
“I think I can operate safely here now. Things have quieted down a bit,” he said.
Before fundamentalists came along, alcohol merchants faced the whims of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
After attracting international condemnation for invading Kuwait, he began portraying himself as a pious Muslim to improve his image at home as economic sanctions ravaged Iraq.
In the mid 1990s he banned alcohol sales in hotels, bars and restaurants.
Even though the risks are higher these days, Khaled believes customers will brave the wrath of militants and take their time choosing from the spirits arrayed at his shop.
“We are making money. We are happy,” he said. The December car bomb attack outside his shop sent body parts flying onto the sidewalk, just a few meters (feet) from where he is standing.
“They used to open fire on the shop. They kidnapped me and beat me so I would tell them where my boss was located. It took me 14 days to recover,” Khaled said.
One of Baghdad’s many blast walls runs along Saadoun street. It gives spirits salesman Yassir Ismail a sense of security. But the heavy concrete barrier is a mixed blessing.
“The traffic police don’t let customers stop cars in front of the shop any more. They worry about more car bombs,” he said. “How can we make money this way when they can’t park nearby?”
edited by Richard Meares and Richard Balmforth