Basra drinkers a rare and dying breed

 

It's not easy finding a pint in Basra. Most of the city's alcohol sellers were systematically gunned down by extremists last summer. Religious groups say they will kill the rest and any they find imbibing. Drinkers have become a rare and dying breed.

In the once liberal portside city there is now only one place where the golden nectar flows freely: outside the British headquarters. Here 100 or so of the world's most determined and steadfast drinkers meet each night in the open beside the base.

They are the city's liberal elite - lawyers, doctors, judges, students - either sitting in their cars or hunkering down behind crash barriers depending on their threshold for danger. It is the only place where they can openly meet, drinkers say.

They like to think that the nearby presence of the British protects them, a conclusion only reached after a few pints.

Three nights ago two cars pulled up, and gunmen belonging to one of the crop of religious parties sprayed the area with machine gun fire. Two drinkers were killed, another died in hospital.

"This sort of thing happens every night but I'll never stop drinking," said Walil al-Jabiri, an ice-cream seller, and former soldier. "I drink beer for freedom. I'll never hide my cans." Such defiance has so far gone unrecognised by the British army, 100 metres away, who have not intervened to stop the drive-by shootings.

"But we still support the Brits," said Noor al-Mohadawi, a lecturer. "We only ask them to provide us with entertainment facilities.

"Basra was the most suffering province before. It should now be uniquely developed to help citizens relax. The British army should promote our hopes and dreams by providing relaxation areas, at the very least a pub," said al-Mohadawi.

Basra's pubs have been closed since the Iran-Iraq war, although under Saddam, alcohol consumption was not forbidden as it is in other Muslim countries. The city was once one of the most popular watering holes in the Middle East. Saddam himself was known to favour a glass or two of champagne.

Political discussion among the drinkers is pessimistic. Few are impressed with the progress made since the fall of Saddam. They say that religious parties have come to dominate intellectual life in the city.

At Basra University liberal academics have been replaced by party apparatchiks, who encourage women to wear the veil and seek the segregation of the sexes. On the streets, armed militia groups set up roadblocks and conduct house-to-house raids on those suspected of being former Baath party members or the "irreligious".

"There is a climate of fear and oppression in the city which used to exist under Saddam," said Yasser, a 27-year-old law student. "People are afraid to stand up for their rights, to tell the religious parties that this is not the way we want to live our lives," he said.

Unfortunately for the drinkers - rapidly dwindling to a handful as the evening wears on and the threat of attack increases - they represent a small minority of Basra's impoverished 1.5 million population. But they remain defiant to the last, as long as the grog keeps flowing.