Conservative crackdown on Baghdad's booming night life

By Martin Chulov

The raids came just before midnight a week ago.

At the start of Eid al-Adha, the four holiest days on the Islamic calendar, hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers stormed each of Baghdad's 300 or so nightclubs. Officers from the most elite units stood outside as soldiers slapped owners' faces, scattered their patrons and dancing girls, ripped down posters advertising upcoming acts, and ordered alcohol removed from the shelves.

They left many of the clubs with a warning - any owner who tried to reopen would be thrown into prison, along with his staff.

The official reason for the mass raids is that none of the premises had licences. The reality is that a year-long renaissance in Baghdad's night life may be over, as this increasingly conservative city takes on a hardline religious identity. Bohemian Baghdad did not last long.

"They treated us like terrorists," said Sinan Kamal, a chef at the Jetar nightclub, displaying both a licence and weekly receipts for fees collected by the Tourism Ministry. "They were behaving like religious police."

Until last week night life was a growth story in Baghdad - once renowned as a city of 1001 vices.

For the large numbers of Baghdadis who believed an older Iraq was on its way back, the raids, and what they signify, are a bitter disappointment.

As security forces gradually won back the streets over the past year, areas of the capital that had long ago been hubs of entertainment were restored to their former decadent glory. Throughout the northern summer, garish shop fronts along the riverside suburb of Abu Nuwas and a nearby strip known as Sadoon Street were teeming with men queuing for clubs touting dancing girls and whisky.

Many of the clubs also doubled as brothels - a factor readily overlooked by Baghdad council and the Iraqi Government, which were both apparently keen to breathe new night life - with all its trappings - back into the city's war-ravaged streets.

In 2007, when American troops handed control of Abu Nuwas to Iraqi forces, they tried to rekindle the area's freewheeling past by offering grants. Throughout the 80s and early 90s, before Saddam Hussein rediscovered religion, the plush strip that spreads either side of the famous Palestine and Sheraton hotels was bustling with bars and gambling dens.

"The Americans back then said they would be happy if the street looked like that again," said Ahmed Khalil, the owner of one of 10 clubs in the strip that has now been closed. "Even the Prime Minister was supportive. He told us all to bring life back to the area. Do you think I would have come back from Syria if the Government hadn't encouraged me to?"

The club owners said the message from the Government was unmistakable. "This is a political decision with a religious agenda," said Hamid Hussein, 35.

"[Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki needs the votes of religious parties and they are prepared to win the election on the account of ordinary Iraqis. They supported us and gave us incentive to reopen the clubs, then when it suited them, they sold us and themselves out to the fundamentalists."

The clubs are only the most colourful victims of the conservative crackdown.

Other potential sources of liberal licentiousness have been targeted, including internet cafes, alcohol vendors, broadcast media outlets and book publishers.

To some in Iraq, particularly the young, the Government moves are a dismaying throwback to the later years of Saddam, who ruthlessly crushed freedoms he largely saw as subversive.

Local journalists, who had enjoyed more freedom of movement and access to officials than in most other countries in the Middle East, have recently reported that several colleagues who tried to cover sensitive issues were savagely beaten by police and soldiers.

As a national election draws near, Maliki is widely viewed as a man looking to consolidate his authority after spending three years trying to assert himself and his Government with limited success.

So the nightclub owners, and other representatives of bohemian Baghdad, can expect more of the same.

IN AND OUT OF THE DARK AGES

With Baghdad as its capital the Abbasid dynasty ruled the Islamic world from 762, making the city a cultural centre renowned for great philosophers such as al-Khawarizmi (780-850) and al-Farabi (872-950).

In 1258 the city was destroyed by the Mongols, plunging Baghdad into cultural decline. In 1534 the Sunnite Ottoman Empire took the city, which remained under its rule until World War I.

British troops occupied Baghdad in 1917 and created the state of Iraq under British mandate with Baghdad as its capital. Baghdad peaked culturally in 1968 when the Baath Party took over and oil brought expansion to the increasingly cosmopolitan capital. Residents drank alcohol and enjoyed a liberal night life.

Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979 and what little night life there was under Saddam ended in 1994 when he launched a "faith campaign".

Some nightlife returned briefly after American troops entered the city in 2003.

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