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Liquor-Shop Owners Being Killed in Iraq

By most accounts, Sameer got off easy — the 42-year-old Christian liquor merchant received only a warning from the masked men who waved Kalashnikov rifles in his face and trashed his house in search of booze.

Others weren't as lucky. Abid Slewa was shot in the head as he unlocked the front door of his liquor store. Bashir Elias, caught selling alcohol from the back of his car, was shot to death Christmas Eve on a street crowded with cheering onlookers.

The sale and consumption of alcohol is legal in secular Iraq, even if many Iraqis avoid it for religious reasons. But as many as nine liquor store owners, most of them Christians, have been killed in Basra (search) since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April, according to merchants.

The slayings have raised concerns within the U.S.-led coalition about the prospects for a tolerant and democratic society emerging in a region dominated by increasingly powerful — and conservative — Shiite Muslim (search) clerics.

British officials and Iraqi police say they have no firm figures on the numbers of people killed for selling alcohol, although they acknowledge such killings have occurred.

The officials and those who have been threatened believe extremists from Basra's resurgent Shiite majority are behind the murders.

"There is an element emerging in the Shiite community that does bear arms, that may be violent," coalition spokesman Dominic D'Angelo said. "People are feeling threatened, and not without reason."

However, he cautioned that "there are lots of different groups emerging right now."

Basra's leading Shiite clerics deny any involvement in the killings. But they do acknowledge that their supporters have been warning people not to buy, drink or sell alcohol, which is banned under Islam.

"These liquor shop owners, we talk to them and tell them that by selling alcohol they are injuring the whole community, bringing shame on all of us," said Sheik Abu Salaam, the Basra representative of hard-line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search).

Under Islamic law, repeat offenders eventually would be put to death, he said.

"But we cannot harm them here ... it is against the law of Iraq," he said.

Shiites — who comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people and are especially dominant in the south — were harshly repressed under Saddam's Sunni-dominated government.

But influential Shiite clerics, including many who unabashedly support imposing Islamic law in Iraq, like al-Sadr and Salaam, have gained considerable power. The influence of the top clerics is clear throughout the south, where posters bearing their images have replaced the once-omnipresent face of Saddam.

With the new faces have come a new set of fears.

Besides the murders, dozens of liquor stores owned by Christians have been torched in recent months.

Women in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, say they have been admonished by angry men for leaving home without a headscarf.

"If I leave my house with my head bare, people shout at me — they yell 'whore,'" said Aida Wahid, a 41-year Christian who owns a beauty salon.

Men tell of being stopped at intersections by gangs of Islamic activists and ordered to shut off music.

Basra has remained a largely peaceful oasis in Iraq, with attacks against coalition forces focused in the Sunni-dominated area north and west of Baghdad.

But the city's once-thriving, albeit small, bar and club scene has practically vanished. Saddam closed bars in a bid to win the religious establishment's support following Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, but alcohol was sold legally in shops. Residents said some bars continued to operate discreetly even after Saddam's ban.

"We're living in a new Iraq," said Sameer, the liquor store owner, who spoke on condition that only his first name be used.

His shop was just down the street from Slewa's, the man shot in the head as he opened his store in May.

"Right after Saddam fell, men started coming by and telling us to stop selling alcohol," he said.

Slewa's murder was the last warning Sameer needed.

"I haven't opened up since," he said.

He now works as a driver for an American company in Basra.