Owners and employees at Baghdad nightclubs and bars voiced frustration on Wednesday after their establishments were raided by troops who allegedly beat customers and staff a day earlier.
The raids, the first of their kind in several months, come as the Iraqi capital takes tentative steps to emerge from years of conflict and violence, with a limited nightlife having slowly returned.
Army special forces carried out raids of venues serving alcohol at around 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Tuesday “at dozens of nightclubs in Karrada and Arasat, and beat up customers with the butts of their guns and batons,” said an interior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Artists who were performing at the clubs were also beaten,” the official said. The reason for the raids was not immediately clear.
Another security official, who also declined to be identified, said the raids were ordered by Lieutenant General Faruq al-Araji, the top security official in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office, but he did not say why.
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 US and British embassies.
“The men of the 56th Brigade were ordered to close the bars, nightclubs and shops where alcohol is served, but they also vandalised those places,” the official said.
In the aftermath of the raids, many of the clubs and bars were closed.
Lazim, who works at an alcohol shop on Arasat street in central Baghdad, said he received a phone call at around 8:00 pm from a friend who was working at another liquor shop nearby.
“There, the soldier destroyed everything,” said Lazim who, like all the employees and shop owners interviewed by AFP, did not want to give his name for fear of reprisal.
“Before leaving, they told my friend, ‘You have 10 minutes to close, or something very bad will happen to you’.”
As a result of the warning, Lazim quickly shuttered his shop just before “big black SUVs filled with soldiers came past my shop. You cannot argue with them. But thank God, nothing happened to my shop.”
Though increasing numbers of Baghdad residents have begun to venture out to restaurants and nightclubs after sunset, a decision that would have been seen as crazy during the worst of Iraq’s violence from 2006 to 2008, revelry has been held back by persistent power shortages and an overnight curfew.
“There were dozens of them,” said a restaurant manager who gave his name as Abu Leopardo, or father of Leopardo. “Without saying anything, they began to destroy the restaurant.”
“They beat my customers with cables, and afterwards, in the kitchen, they broke bottles of beer and whiskey. Some of my employees are in hospital,” said the 27-year-old, who runs the Jannat al-Ahlam (Paradise Dreams) restaurant on Arasat street.
In the restaurant’s kitchen, Bangladeshi and Pakistani staff wearing sandals were cleaning up the shattered glass that was all that was left of the broken bottles of alcohol.
“This is a five-star establishment,” complained Abu Leopardo.
“I am a Christian and an Iraqi. But I have had enough. I want to leave Iraq on the next plane.”