W.G. Dunlop, AFP
Last updated: 26 September, 2011

Selling booze in Baghdad a dangerous business

Selling alcohol in Baghdad is a dangerous business, with liquor store workers facing bombings, shootings and robberies, while also being separated from their families, who often live elsewhere.

But a dearth of other jobs keeps Baghdad’s liquor stores staffed.

There are 96 registered alcohol shops in Baghdad province, its governor Salah Abdel Razak told AFP, plus an unknown number of unlicensed liquor stores.

During July and August, there were at least 30 attacks against Iraqi alcohol shops, with about five occurring in the southern port city of Basra and the remainder in Baghdad, according to an interior ministry official, who said the figures may include multiple attacks against the same shop.

A liquor shop in the Sinaa area of central Baghdad in which Shakir, a moustachioed 36-year-old, currently works was one of the stores attacked in July.

The small shop has an open front, with only a marble-topped counter separating customers from the store’s neatly organised shelves of whiskey, vodka and coolers of beer.

It has a guard, but he does not have a visible weapon.

In July, “the whole shop was destroyed” by a bomb that caused $30,000 to $40,000 in damage and shuttered it for 15 days, but did not kill anyone, said Shakir, who declined to give his full name for fear of retribution.

He worked at a nearby shop at the time of the explosion, but started working at the store that was attacked after it reopened.

He suspects a man who came by inquiring about whiskey placed an explosive device on a generator near the shop. The remains of the device were found there after the attack.

“I hope to work in another job,” Shakir said. “I work here because there are no other jobs, but it is bad because we are targeted.”

Shakir, a member of Iraq’s small Yazidi minority, came from Mosul in north Iraq to Baghdad seeking work, and supports his wife and eight children with the 800,000 Iraqi dinars (about $680) he makes per month.

In addition to the danger of attacks, Shakir only gets to see his family in Mosul every two months for 10 to 15 days, he said.

When he is in Baghdad, he stays in a house with about 20 people, who sleep three in a room or on the roof.

Asked who he thinks are behind the attacks on alcohol shops in Baghdad, its governor Abdel Razak said that “in my opinion, there are some people who have ideological or moral motives that make them attack these shops.”

“Their way of thinking is against this kind of work.”

In some parts of Iraq, such as the Shiite provinces of Karbala and Najaf, alcohol shops are banned by local laws.

With alcohol forbidden by Islam, Baghdad liquor stores are an attractive target for fundamentalist groups, made more so because they are staffed by religious minorities.

But not all attacks on liquor stores appear to be religiously motivated.

The shop just a few metres (yards) from the one in which Shakir now works was robbed in September 2010 by pistol-armed gunmen wearing military uniforms, who stole some 700,000 Iraqi dinars ($600) in cash and about 250,000 dinars ($210) of whiskey, according to Jalal, a worker there.

The small shop has an open front, with a wooden-topped counter between the street and its interior. It has one guard, who is not visibly armed.

“They threatened the workers here and said, ‘Why did you open the shop? Why you don’t go to the north and work there?'” said Jalal, a Yazidi from Mosul who works in the store but was not there when the attack occurred.

“I thought about (leaving) this dangerous job 100 times, but I don’t have an alternative,” said Jalal.

“My hair turned white from thinking of my future,” he said.

Jalal has a wife and nine children, whom he sees every two months for about a month at a time. All are dependent on his 800,000 Iraqi dinar (about $680) per month salary.

“Our lives depend on God and me; I am the only person who supports the family,” he said. “Life is very hard and my salary is not enough to live on.”

When he is in Baghdad, he too stays in a house with between 20 and 30 other people, with five people to a room.

Sarkis, an Armenian Christian, is a long-time member of the alcohol-selling profession, having worked in the trade since around 1976, when he was only 18.

The alcohol distribution business where he works in central Baghdad is surrounded by high metal walls, giving it a fortress-like appearance.

The compound also includes a small shop that sells to individual customers, which has metal bars extending from the counter-top to the ceiling, and looks more like a bunker than a normal store.

There are good reasons for the precautions — one night in 2006, masked gunmen armed with pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles attacked the company, killing one of its workers, Sarkis said.

A guard fired on the attackers, but there were too many of them, he said.

The following year, armed men in civilian clothes overwhelmed a guard and then set about destroying the company’s goods, causing at least $200,000 dollars in damage.

Afterwards, the company was closed for about a year and a half, Sarkis said.

“In reality, I cannot work in another job,” he said, noting conditions in Iraq make it difficult to find work.

Sarkis supports his five children and wife with his 1.2 million Iraqi dinar ($1,025) monthly salary, he said.

They live in Dohuk province in the relatively stable Kurdistan area of north Iraq, where he moved them from Baghdad in 2004 due to security fears. He gets to see them for roughly 10 days every two months.

Sarkis would like to leave his job, or better yet, the country.

“It would be good to leave this job,” he said. But “what I have in mind is leaving Iraq.”