BAGHDAD – Just a few months ago, nightlife in Iraq seemed to be back to its pre-invasion buzz. Patrons, both Iraqis and foreigners, filled clubs to share drinks and nights of dancing — bellydancing or otherwise. But many of these frequented hot spots have grown quiet, amid an ongoing governmental crackdown on nightclubs and liquor stores.
Concerned the venues are undermining "public morals," and facing pressure from conservatives, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued the order to close these spots.
The closures cut short a brief revival of Baghdad's once-vibrant nightlife as residents began to enjoy some of the activities they were forced to abandon amid the sectarian violence unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The raids on unlicensed nightclubs and liquor stores began in November when Baghdad's governor, Salah Abdul-Razzaq, announced a campaign that has a mix of vice squad, morality police and tax collector. Abdul-Razzaq said he seeks to stamp out unlicensed party spots, which officials claim could become havens for gangs and prostitution. He also complained that the outlaw clubs do not pay taxes.
But there's also an aspect of righteous anger that could suggest expanding conservative influence on the city's Shiite administration. A fall in violence appeared to be causing a rise in the city's spirits.
"We don't want our city to become a den of immorality," he said.
But storekeepers across Baghdad are puzzled by the crackdown.
"The ban doesn't make sense. It gives people the impression that Iraq is an intolerant nation. That just isn't true," liquor store owner Nazir Jassim Abed told Fox News.
So far, authorities have closed more than 90 nightclubs and other establishments selling booze, he said. That would leave just 109 places — in a city of more than 5 million — with licenses issued under Saddam Hussein's regime before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, said the governor's office.
City officials are not issuing new liquor licenses at the moment and it's unclear how many more clandestine party haunts remain in the city. Abdul-Razzaq vows that the crackdown will not ease.
"Our duty is to enforce the law," he insisted.
Just a year ago, Baghdad authorities were still far more preoccupied with wartime violence than chasing municipal scofflaws. In November, by contrast, Iraqi officials reported 88 civilian deaths due to violence for the month — one of their lowest totals since the war began.
Dominic Di Natale and The Associated Press contributed to this report.