Big Story 10

Iraq's parliament votes to ban alcoholic beverages

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s parliament voted on Saturday to ban alcoholic beverages, lawmakers said, a move that worried Iraqis who see the growing influence of religious parties a threat to freedoms.

Bottles of alcohol are seen at a wine shop in Baghdad, Iraq, August 24, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

Iraq’s population is predominantly Shi’ite Muslim, and its society is conservative, with many women wearing the black head-to-toe abaya and most people eschewing alcohol, which is forbidden by Islam.

But alcohol is readily available in dozens of shops, bars and hotels around Baghdad and in some provinces. Though drinking in public is not prohibited, it is frowned upon. In Baghdad, it is not unusual to see youths drinking on the banks of the Tigris.

The proposed alcohol ban is part of a bill on financing municipalities.

“Forbidding the import, manufacture and sell of all kinds of alcohol drinks,” the bill said.

Shi’ite religious groups have dominated parliament since a U.S. invasion in 2003 toppled the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. His fall meant greater religious freedom but also gave rise to sectarian conflict and political power struggles between Shi’ites and Sunnis, deepening their communities’ religious retrenchment.

“This law is necessary to preserve Iraq’s identity as a Muslim country,” said Mahmoud al-Hassan, a Shi’ite lawmaker and head of the legal panel of parliament.

But MP Yonadim Kenna, from Iraq’s Christian minority, said the ban would run against the constitution and that he would refer the case to the federal court.

“The decision gives a negative picture on what is supposed to be democratic Iraq. It’s a violation to the freedoms of all, not a certain group,” said Kenna.

Some Iraqis worry Iraq will become a religious state, like neighboring Iran.

“It’s obvious that religious parties are pushing Iraq to go the way of neighboring Shi’ite Iran, and install a religious theocracy,” said Daniel Numan, an Iraqi human rights activist.

Like Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other countries in the region, Iraq used to produce arak, a clear, anise-flavored liquor which turns milky when mixed with water.

But most arak factories have closed down, notably in the northern town of Bashiqa, close to Mosul. Iraqi Kurdish fighters said on Sunday they had captured Bashiqa from Islamic State. Iraqi troops, helped by Shi’ite and Kurdish fighters, as well as U.S. forces, are waging an offensive to take Mosul back from the control of Islamic State.

Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Writing by Saif Hameed; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky