While human rights groups increasingly voice frustration at a wave of assaults on nightclubs and other alcohol-serving venues in Iraq, parties behind the raid and the destruction of some of these places remain shrouded in mystery, at least officially.
“The office of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces issued a statement saying that the orders to close these clubs came from the judiciary, but judicial spokesman Abdul Sattar al-Beer Qadar denied issuing any orders of this sort,” Ali Yazid, manager of alcohol-serving Al-Marshreq Social Club, told Al Arabiya.
In early September, special operations forces carried out near-simultaneous raids at dozens of nightclubs in Baghdad and beat up customers with the butts of their guns and batons, an interior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
“Artists who were performing at the clubs were also beaten,” he added.
On Sept. 8, Iraq’s Judiciary Council denied that it has issued any orders to close down social and cultural venues that serve alcohol in Baghdad.
Disgruntled civil society
“The National Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights in Iraq considered the storming and the closure of these venues as violation of the law and the constitution as there is no judicial orders,” Kamran Badal, manager of another alcohol-serving outlet, the Pharmacists Social Club, told Al Arabiya.
“Intellectuals have found it strange for such repeated assaults on freedoms; they accuse government of turning Baghdad into Kandahar.”
Iraqi intellectuals have previously protested against the government’s clampdown on liberal cultural icons in the country under the slogan: “Baghdad is not Kandahar,” and in reference to Afghanistan’s second largest city and the generally perceived more conservative Afghan culture at least in comparison to Baghdad.
The protest slogan was heavily used when the Iraqi ministry of education banned music and arts education in the country late 2010, but re-opened in Jan. 2011 as a more liberal new education minister took office.
Ibrahim al-Khayat, from the Iraqi Writers Union, reflected the civil society woes and fears.
“What is happening right now is a dangerous indicator and a bad omen for more assaults to come violating freedoms,” he said, describing social clubs serving alcohol being forced to shut down as the eradication of the “simplest forms of civil society” in which the constitution guarantees and in its twenty articles.
Maysoun al-Dimuluji, a member of parliament from the Sunni-backed yet Secular Al Iraqiya List, warned that “there is a campaign to suppress freedoms, eliminate plurality and freedom of expression in Iraq.”
Dimuluji said this campaign to clamp down on freedoms include banning women not wearing the scarf from entering al-Khathimiya area, where two highly revered imams are buried in Baghdad as well as the crackdown on nightclub scene.
Nouri al-Maliki as culprit?
The head of Baghdad’s Provincial Council, Kamil al-Zaidi, told the Iraq-based Al-Sumaria News TV that the “closure of the nightclubs came after many complaints from Baghdad residents, especially in areas that have witnessed spread of cabarets and clubs.”
According to Zaidi, a decision was passed in 2009 to close down alcohol-serving venues that do not have licenses, but owners did not respond.
“These places will be allowed only after official licenses,” he said, adding “these clubs with their dancers became only meters away from homes of citizens and their families.”
With the judicial denying responsibility, reports have emerged indicating that the decision sprung from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office.
Maliki, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Iraq, was accused by security forces’ figures of having ordered the crackdown on nightclubs.
A high-ranking security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Mada newspaper that security forces received orders not from the judiciary but directly from Maliki’s office.
Another political source, who wished to keep his name anonymous, told Shafaq News, that “Maliki has met with prominent Iranian clergies during the Non-Aligned Movement summit who did not like Baghdad and other Iraqi cities entertaining people with nightclubs.”
Dumuluji said, “This does not happen in isolation and without any political influence from some neighboring countries who want to impose their hegemony and influence on Iraqi culture.”
According to an official, who also declined to be identified, told AFP that the raids were ordered by Lt. Gen. Faruq al-Araji, the top security official in Maliki’s office, but he did not say why.
“The men of the 56th Brigade were ordered to close the bars, nightclubs and shops where alcohol is served, but they also vandalized those places,” the official said.
Araji commands the army’s elite 56th Brigade, which is charged with security for Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to parliament, government buildings and the U.S. and British embassies.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq many nightclubs were forced to move to the safer northern more autonomous region of Kurdistan after becoming targets by extremists.
But the capital’s nightlife is slowly returning, despite the occurrence of attacks, power shortages and an overnight curfew that takes effect from 1:00 am every night.