March 5. 2024. 1:27

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Iraqi authorities fear backlash following measures to enforce a ban on alcohol

Five Iraqi Christian politicians have filed a lawsuit against measures to enforce a 2016 ban on the consumption, sale, manufacture and importation of alcoholic beverages which are prohibited by the Koran and Islamic canon law.

The legislators argued in an appeal to the supreme court that the ban is unconstitutional as it violates the rights of Iraq’s six minorities and restricts personal freedoms of all Iraqis.

Conservative defenders of the ban claim that the constitution prohibits anything that is viewed as contradicting Islamic practice. Ban violators face fines of 10-25 million dinars (€7,130-€18,027).

“Iraq is not an Islamic state and there are different religions and sects. Some religions allow drinking alcohol and the government cannot impose a certain opinion or an ideology on all others,” Baghdad-based political analyst Ali Sahib told Reuters.

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The law is unlikely to be enforced in the northern autonomous Kurdish region.

After adoption, the measure was shelved for seven years until last month. The authorities fear a backlash from the millions of Iraqis of various faiths who enjoy recreational drinking at home and in clubs and licensed bars.

Iraq’s parliament included the ban as an unexpected attachment to a municipal import law while Iraqis were preoccupied with the battle in Mosul (October 2016-July 2017) against Islamic State, also known as Isis.

Implementation was mandated when the pro-Iran fundamentalist Shia political party Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq engineered publication of the ban in the official gazette. After a year of political turmoil following the October 2021 parliamentary election, Iraqi factions established a government dominated by conservative Shia parties formed by ex-militia leaders with close links to Iran where alcohol is banned. Other legislators and the public were once again caught off guard as duty on imported alcohol was raised to 200 per cent a week before the prohibition was gazetted.

As a first step, customs agents have been ordered to seize alcohol imports. So far, Christian-owned shops which sell alcohol continue to serve customers and local firms maintain production of beer, arak, whiskey and gin. Strict enforcement of the ban could deprive 200,000 Iraqis of employment, the Guardian reported. There is concern that tourists, who have started to return to Iraq, could be put off by the ban. Smuggling ingredients and foreign alcoholic drinks could become a highly lucrative business.

Attacks on shops which sell alcohol began soon after the US occupation. After shops shuttered, beer drinkers secured their drinks after dark from youths huddled under bridges in Baghdad. Since then, the alcohol trade has flourished.

In neighbouring Muslim-majority Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alcohol is available to non-Muslims who obtain licences from official distributors. Alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait but freely available in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon and at bars, restaurants, and off-licences in Bahrain.