- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

BAGHDAD — Mohammed Majed’s makeshift bar is a trash-strewn parking lot beneath a highway overpass somewhere in the Baghdad sprawl.

It’s got half a dozen plastic tables and chairs, a barbecue grill, a cooler filled with cans of beer and a boombox pumping out Arab pop tunes. It has plenty of cheap whiskey and gin. It has the open air.

It isn’t much but, with the teetotaling Saddam Hussein and his regime no longer in charge, Mr. Majed’s establishment is hopping by mid-evening, packed with tipsy customers stopping off for a nightcap.

“Everyone expresses themselves their own way,” said Mr. Majed, a skinny 25-year-old with an easy laugh. “Some write graffiti. Some start a newspaper. We like to drink.”

For decades, Saddam the dictator tortured and punished political dissidents who protested his rule. But for years, Saddam the abstemious despot also would not even let his people enjoy a drink in public.

Up until the 1980s many Iraqis loved to drink. At parties, Baghdad’s middle-class professionals placed whole bottles of whiskey in front of each guest.

But after Saddam’s defeat in the first Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi leader got religion, trying to reinvent himself as a devout Muslim. He started going to the mosque on Fridays and sprinkling his talk with religious references. He launched a faith campaign, and in 1996 he banned drinking in all public places.

“If you were out here drinking or set up an unlicensed liquor store, you’d be arrested and jailed for at least six months,” Mr. Majed said.

Of course, Saddam could not go too far. His oldest son, Uday, was a notoriously nasty and violent drunk. For fun, Uday drank heavily and fired off assault rifles at parties.

Saddam did not ban liquor outright. He just made it hard for ordinary folks to drink outside of their homes. Sales plummeted. Many in the liquor and nightlife business — mostly Iraq’s Christian minority — left the country.

With Saddam gone, the drinking business is rolling. Because the U.S.-led occupation force won’t let Iraq impose customs on imports, liquor is cheap. Sales are way up.

Behnam Ishar, who runs a liquor store in the fancy Karada section of town, said sales have grown tenfold in the post-Saddam era.

“I have no doubt it will soon be like the 1980s,” said Mr. Ishar, a Christian Iraqi.

Not everyone is delighted that Iraqis have rediscovered their love for spirits. Sitting cross-legged in his mosque, Mullah Mohammed Baqi Mostafa al-Bayati detailed the evils of alcohol. He condemned the sharp increase in drinking among the young, predicting it will lead to anarchy.

He recounted a chilling tale about alcohol from Islamic teachings: A woman beckons a salesman to a house. She offers him a choice — either rape her, kill his own son or drink alcohol. The man replies that since he’s a Muslim and can’t kill or rape, he’ll drink the alcohol. He winds up getting drunk, raping the woman and killing his own son.

“A man who drinks can’t tell the difference between his wife and his sister,” said the mullah.

In Iraq’s postwar disorder, Islamic vigilantes have targeted liquor stores, firing shots through store windows at night. Mr. Ishar, the store owner, said in the first days after the war, shops were burned down. But the real danger, he said, was in rural areas outside of Baghdad.

“In the south of the country, it was far worse,” he said. “Two of my friends who own liquor stores were killed.”

Mr. Majed said his biggest fear is someone throwing a grenade at his roadside bar. But, otherwise unemployed and without any job prospects, he said running the bar is now his main livelihood.

Horns blared as a wedding procession stopped by to pick up some bottles of whiskey. Supersized, high-alcohol cans of beer cost a dollar and bottles of whiskey and gin go for $6.

“Sure, someday, mullahs or Saddam II might take over Iraq and punish us again,” said Abdullah Qader-Amin, a customer sitting on a blanket in the parking lot enjoying a can of beer and a sandwich with his two friends. “For now, we’re enjoying the simple joy of getting drunk.”

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