Baghdad calmer _ and quieter _ with club crackdown

AP News
Posted: Dec 07, 2009 1:56 PM

The padlocks were snapped shut last week.

Musicians were allowed to return briefly to pack up their keyboards and drums. Bartenders came back to store away the liquor and maybe take a few souvenirs of a freewheeling time in Baghdad's nightlife of toasting, drinking and dancing.

The closure of two popular spots facing the Tigris River _ the Al-Madheef club and Al-Khayam fish restaurant _ was another blow by authorities trying to tame Baghdad's increasingly wild nights as falling violence gives way to some high spirits.

The raids on unlicensed nightclubs and liquor stores began in November when Baghdad's governor, Salah Abdul-Razzaq, announced a campaign that has a mix of vice squad, morality police and tax collector. Abdul-Razzaq said he seeks to stamp out the unlicensed party spots, which officials claim could become havens for gangs and prostitution. He also complained that the outlaw clubs do not pay taxes.

But there's also an aspect of righteous anger that could suggest expanding conservative influence on the city's Shiite administration.

"We don't want our city to become a den of immorality," he said.

So far, authorities have closed more than 90 nightclubs and other establishments selling booze, he said. That would leave just 109 places _ in a city of more than 5 million _ with licenses issued under Saddam Hussein's regime before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, said the governor's office.

City officials are not issuing new liquor licenses at the moment and it's unclear how many more clandestine party haunts remain in the city. Abdul-Razzaq vows that the crackdown will not ease.

"Our duty is to enforce the law," he insisted.

Just a year ago, Baghdad authorities were still far more preoccupied with wartime violence than chasing municipal scofflaws. In November, by contrast, Iraqi officials reported 88 civilian deaths due to violence for the month _ one of their lowest totals since the war began.

Nightclubs sprouted across the capital this year offering everything from Western rap to Eastern belly dancer. Many of the older, officially licensed places also spruced up and reopened after years of being closed by war. At the venerable Alwiyah Club in central Baghdad, waiters in matching polo shirts serve drinks and crowds pour in for twice-a-week bingo nights.

Authorities just stood aside as nightlife roared back in parts of the city _ some of it nothing more than wine with dinner, but other spots far more like Vegas with dancers and wealthy patrons buying whiskey by the bottle.

For older Iraqis, it was a touch of bohemian nostalgia. Baghdad and Basra in the south were among the Arab world's premier party towns during the 1970s and '80s and getaway spots for neighbors in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where booze is banned. Saddam rolled back much of the high life in the 1990s as he tightened his grip on power and courted support from conservative Islamic factions.

The war brought another threat from militants _ both Sunni and Shiite _ who sometimes targeted stores selling alcohol or Western music. Many parts of Iraq remain firmly linked to traditional Islamic values, but there also is a significant number of people who crave the bright lights. Iraq's main private television channel, Al-Sharqiya, features a steady diet of Arabic songs and writhing dancing girls.

Along Abu Nawas Street _ which includes a popular strip of parkland and restaurants along the Tigris _ traffic crawls during weekend nights with car speakers thumping music.

"We need to let loose after six years of war, bro," said Qais al-Hamadi, a 20-year-old student at Baghdad University who spoke in Arabic but tossed in "bro" for the sake of a Western journalist. "Why would they want to close the clubs? We need a place to go. We're just trying to have a good time, bro."

The governor, Abdul-Razzaq, said authorities have received "many complaints" from families that teenagers were buying liquor from stores and drinking in the streets. Also, he said nightclubs were putting advertisements on fliers and posters that contain "immoral images" such as women singers in low-cut blouses.

"It's our duty to fight this," he said.

Despite the crackdown, Baghdad retains its cosmopolitan edge over much of the country _ rivaled only by the openness of the Kurds' enclave in the north.

In Basra deep in the Shiite south, the nation's second-largest city, the provincial council last week lifted a four-month-old prohibition on alcohol. But a ban on alcohol remains in the province of Najaf, which has some of the holiest Shiite sites in Iraq.