In Iraqi Kurdistan, little regard for Baghdad alcohol ban

In practice, Baghdad does not have the means to enforce the measure in Kurdistan if its regional government decides not to do so on its own.

An Iraqi man buys liquor from a closed shop, that is selling illegaly through a window, in the capital of Baghdad on October 23, 2016. The Iraqi parliament voted a day earlier to ban the sale, import and production of alcohol. Sabah Arar/AFP
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ERBIL // It’s business as usual for alcohol shops in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, where officials have vowed that Baghdad’s recently passed ban on booze will not be enforced.

The ban on the sale, import and production of alcohol was slipped into draft legislation on municipalities in Iraq’s parliament last week, but the country’s president has since called for the law to be revised.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, a three-province region in the country’s north that has its own government, security forces and flag, there seems to be another plan: ignore the measure even if the law remains unchanged.

“We do not recognise such laws” which will not be applied in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, said Farsat Sophie, a member of the legal committee in the Kurdish regional parliament.

The region’s culture minister also said that the measure would not be enforced, slamming it as an infringement on individual freedom.

“This decision is against democracy and against personal freedoms,” Khalid Doski said.

Drinking is fairly widespread in Iraq, including in Baghdad, where there are scores of small alcohol shops.

If the ban is not implemented in Kurdistan but is elsewhere, it is all but guaranteed to result in a thriving black market for booze brought from the region into federally controlled areas.

Both the federal and Kurdish regional parliaments have legislative powers, but it is unclear which would have primacy in the case of the alcohol issue.

In practice, Baghdad does not have the means to enforce the measure in Kurdistan if its regional government decides not to do so on its own.

In Ainkawa, a Christian area of Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, cars carrying people coming to purchase booze line up near shops that are packed with whisky, beer and other alcohol.

Raed Basil Hanna, the owner of an Ainkawa alcohol store, said the Iraqi parliament should be focusing on more important issues.

The government should pay attention to “the situations of the people and improving their circumstances and taking them out of poverty”, instead of “issuing decisions that do not benefit anyone”, he said.

In addition to fighting an ongoing war against extremists, Iraq faces myriad other problems, including an economic crisis due to low oil prices and abysmal basic services.

In any case, “we obtained approval from the government of the region and are practising our work as usual”, said Hanna, who has worked in the alcohol selling business for over 25 years.

“Most of those who stood behind the decision drink alcohol,” he said with a smile.

In Baghdad, the future of the ban, which has not officially come into effect, is less clear.

Yonadam Kanna, a leading Christian politician, was furious after the vote on Saturday and went on television to condemn it, vowing to challenge it in a federal court.

Without specifically mentioning the ban, president Fuad Masum called on Wednesday for parliament to revise the law that included it in a way that respects “the freedoms and rights of citizens of different religions and doctrines”.

Alcohol is rarely offered in Iraqi restaurants and hotels, but some young people drink it while sitting along the Tigris, while others do so at a bridge across the river, which runs through the capital.

Iraq also has companies that produce various types of alcohol, such as Farida beer or Asriya arak, a regional anise-flavoured spirit.

Baghdad alcohol shops are already shuttered for Arbaeen, a 40-day period following the date on which Iraqi Shiites commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

The shops were also closed in the 10 days preceeding the start of Arbaeen, in addition to during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, meaning that alcohol sellers already face well over two months a year in which they cannot work.

Some people still sell alcohol during the religious occasions, but do so at the peril of attack by militia forces in the capital.

* Agence France-Presse