BAGHDAD, Iraq – It's getting harder and harder to buy a beer in Baghdad.
At least five stores selling liquor in the Ghadeer district alone were blown up by Islamic militants in the last week, prompting other store owners to close or to stop selling liquor.
The attacks, and similar ones around the country, have raised fears that militant Islam — which was harshly suppressed under Saddam Hussein's secular regime — is taking advantage of the unsettled political situation to impose its will.
It's unclear who is carrying out the attacks. Some Iraqis blame followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search), whose militia battled the Americans in April and May. However, some attacks have taken place in Sunni areas — including cities that are centers of the 15-month-old insurgency.
In some parts of Iraq, especially the Shiite areas south of Basra, alcohol is practically contraband. There, Islamic radicals, enforcing the Islamic prohibition against liquor, have bombed or fired on shops selling beer. In Fallujah, a Sunni city west of the capital, Islamic militants have publicly whipped men accused of selling alcohol.
Baghdad, long a cosmopolitan city where Iraqis would spend summer nights by the Tigris River, smoking water pipes and sipping drinks, has become the latest battleground, with some shops destroyed or forced to hide their wares.
On a recent day, a young man swept away shards of glass from a vandalized Baghdad liquor store. Blood caked one of his hands; wet boxes labeled "alcoholic beverages" and crushed cans of Goldstar beer (search), an Israeli brew, sat in a muddy pile.
"It's a terrorist act, pure and simple," said Assim Sadek. "This isn't something an Iraqi would do. It serves no one here."
Halim Moawad said his father had owned the store for eight years without incident until the Islamic militants attacked.
"They came and put a paper on the door a few days before which said: 'Close this shop, it is in the service of the devil,'" Moawad recalled. Then the militants bombed the store.
"We're too scared to reopen now," Moawad said.
Many secular Iraqis criticize the attacks, recalling times when wedding receptions would last into the early hours, with revelers enjoying alcohol, music and dancing — things the Islamic radicals are trying to ban.
"It was always nice to have a drink at night, after dinner, you'd go out and meet friends, have a drink and then go home," said an ice cream vendor, who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation.
"This is part of rotten ideas that remained from Saddam's time, when he tried to make the imams happy," he said, referring to Saddam's attempts to accommodate religious fundamentalism after the 1991 Gulf War.
Alcohol is a sensitive issue in much of the Middle East, where governments try to appease religious ideals while catering to Western workers.
Its sale is permitted in bars and selected restaurants in Dubai, but not the rest of the United Arab Emirates, and only non-Muslims are able to buy it after applying for a license. The situation is similar in Bahrain. Alcohol is not banned in Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, but is prohibited in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Iraqis say al-Sadr and his followers are carrying out the anti-alcohol drive to garner support ahead of elections scheduled for January. Along with printed warnings plastered on shop doors, al-Sadr's group is reportedly circulating leaflets banning the sale or purchase of alcohol, CDs, or pornography.
A preacher speaking on al-Sadr's behalf at a mosque last Friday gave liquor sellers in Baghdad's Kazimiya (search) neighborhood a 48-hour deadline to get out of the business.
"We are going to terminate them. We do not want liquor, songs or prostitutes in our sacred Kazimiya city," said the cleric, Raed al-Saadi.
The anti-alcohol crackdown has also hit Sunni areas.
On July 10, attackers in the northern city of Mosul, a Sunni stronghold, destroyed a liquor store. The same day, militants blew up three liquor stores in Baqouba, a city north of Baghdad that is split between Shiites and Sunnis. A taxi driver was killed by one blast.
The next day, Islamic militants shouting "God is great" fired on a Baghdad shop selling liquor, destroying the merchandise, damaging nearby cars and abducting an employee.
Iraqi officials trying to stop the deadly insurgency say the liquor store attacks are the least of their worries.
Down the road from Moawad's store, another liquor shop is shuttered, its garage door spray-painted with the words, "This store is closed, and it's empty [of alcohol]." Not far away, a store that once sold alcohol is now a butcher shop.
In another Baghdad neighborhood, a liquor store owner kept wine behind the counter, covered with bags of potato chips. He brought out photographs of his store during Saddam's rule, when the cabinets overflowed with whiskey, vodka and cognac.
"Once, some Islamists came to threaten us, telling us to stop selling the alcohol," said the man, who declined to be named for fear of attack. "We told the police and they sent two guards, one outside and one inside, who minded the store for days until the threat was gone. We were happier when Saddam was around."
Now, he only sells to people he knows.
"I fear they will come and kill me if they find out," he said.