Guardian/Observer, UK
Aug 1 2004

Iraq violence as puritans ban alcohol

Radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his army of devotees blamed
for campaign of intimidation

Rory McCarthy in Baghdad


First came the warning: a sheet of paper stuck to the door of Na'aman
Khalil's shop ordering him to close his off-licence. 'You are
corrupting the people of the Earth and you should stop,' said the
message, signed by a group calling itself the Monotheistic Movement
of Jihad.
Five days later, a parcel of explosives detonated just outside the
building, smashing the windows and gutting the shop. Four other
alcohol stores along the same street in Baghdad's largely Christian
al-Ghadir district were bombed that same night.

No one was injured, but the message was clear. After the bombings and
a spate of other attacks across Baghdad, most of the city's alcohol
shops closed.

'They have achieved their aim. Whatever they wanted, they have got
it,' said Khalil, 24, who says the bombing cost him seven million
dinars (around 2,600) in destroyed stock. 'If I open the shop again
I don't know what action they would take. Probably they would kill
me.'

There have been no arrests, but police and many Iraqis blame the
attacks and explosions on supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical
Shia cleric. A few days before the warning letter arrived, several of
al-Sadr's followers met around 30 Shia tribal leaders in the al-Hekma
mosque in Sadr City, the slum area in eastern Baghdad which forms the
cleric's powerbase.

They produced an edict, obtained by The Observer, in which they
listed nine crimes punishable by death. These included theft,
kidnapping, robbery, spying 'for the Wahabis, al-Qaeda and
Saddamists', trafficking in women, and selling alcohol, pornographic
CDs and drugs.

The edict, it states, was drawn up because of the 'critical and
sorrowful situation and lack of security and to serve the common
good'. Most of the tribal leaders who signed were from Amara, Kut and
Nasiriyah, towns in southern Iraq where a Shia uprising in April was
strongest.

'After the end of the dispute between our army and the Americans, our
army is working on stability and controlling the looters and other
violent groups,' said Sheikh Raed al-Kadhimi, one of al-Sadr's aides
in Baghdad. He boasted of a number of checkpoints and patrols in Sadr
City, and said one had captured several hundred tonnes of stolen
sugar, which he said were returned to the government.

The movement, made up largely of young, unemployed urban men, has
easily moved into the power vacuum left by the absence of properly
trained and equipped Iraqi police and security forces.

'Neither the government nor the police are controlling the
situation,' said al-Kadhimi. 'The al-Sadr tide is the only active
tide in the country.' He denied that his men took part in the attacks
on alcohol shops: 'We have never taken such action. All this has been
done by fanatical individuals.'

Much of the movement's strength is in its organisation. The group has
its own religious police, the al-Amur bil Ma'arouf, or Promotion of
Virtue. They have divided Baghdad into three areas: east, west and
the central Kadhimiya area, home to the biggest Shia shrine in the
city. Each area has its own unit. In Kadhimiya it numbers around 40;
in the eastern sector, around Sadr City, it is at least 100 according
to Sayed Adnan al-Safi, an al-Sadr official and editor of one of the
movement's newspapers. He said the groups are unarmed and co-operate
on patrols with the regular police, although the Interior Ministry
has denied any involvement.

'In Kadhimiya we have minimised and controlled places where alcohol
is sold. We have controlled the sale of immoral CDs and we have
stopped fraud,' said al-Safi. 'People have begun to understand and
are co-operating with us to control the general violence. We are not
issuing any punishments ourselves, otherwise we would be considered a
state within a state. We pass cases on to the police for punishment.'


There is little doubt that the movement is about more than
controlling crime. In the past week al-Sadr's followers have
proselytised among Iraq's minority faiths. A group of them delivered
a video of speeches by al-Sadr to the Armenian Orthodox church in
Baghdad. A priest, who asked not to be named, said the speeches
criticised the Christian faith. 'We have been living in Iraq for 100
years and have never had a problem between Muslim and Christian,' he
said. 'These people are explaining the Koran in the wrong way. Islam
is a religion of peace and humanity.'

Until now al-Sadr has boycotted the political process in Iraq,
reviling the government as 'illegitimate'. But according to
al-Kadhimi, the movement could develop a political dimension if its
leader ordered one. 'From the beginning we have been asking for fair
and honest elections,' he said. 'We will have to see what happens [at
general elections] in January.'