Sheik could spell curtains for movies, alcohol in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The movie is old and is from Turkey, and it is about a rich boy who meets a poor girl and falls in love. It is called A Special Date, and in two brief scenes, the girl appears topless.

Faded posters in the lobby of the Stars Cinema on Sadoun Street entice customers with snapshots of the racy images. Each poster bears a small triangular stamp dated 1999 from the regime of Saddam Hussein: "Approved for show by the Ministry of Information."

A prominent Muslim leader now says the approval was a terrible mistake that must be reversed. Sheik Mohammed al-Fartusi issued a religious decree this week prohibiting such movies, along with the sale and consumption of alcohol, taking advantage of a security and political void left by American occupation troops.

It is not the first time a sheik here has issued such a statement, and Fartusi, though well known, is not considered highly influential. But his pronouncements are being taken seriously because of the failing security situation, which has made everyone in the capital feel vulnerable.

Many liquor stores and movie theaters are closing, and owners of others have hired armed guards. Nearly all of the establishments have removed their outdoor signs. Over the past several days, eight distilleries on the outskirts of Baghdad that made arak, the bitter liquor that is a trademark of the region, have been burned.

Afraid of a similar firebombing, the manager of the Stars Cinema, Suliman Saadi, took down his marquee.

"Any foreign film has a bit of sex or striptease," he said. "So, if the sheik gets his way, every film we show would be illegal. Even some Arabic films have sex."

To stave off violence, another theater owner posted a sign on his gate: "To our people, Cinema Nasser does not show any bad films."

Fartusi told reporters yesterday at a house across from his mosque that Iraq should be an Islamic state and adhere to stringent rules requiring modest dress and prohibiting alcohol and provocative entertainment.

"I only ordered what God has already ordered," said Fartusi, who denied sending anyone to set fire to the arak distilleries. "They paid a debt because Islam forbids alcohol. My job is to tell people what is forbidden and what is not."

Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population but were oppressed under Hussein's Sunni rule. U.S. officials are trying to curtail the actions of some Shiite leaders in hopes of preventing Iraq from becoming a theocracy like neighboring Iran.

In a secure city, pronouncements by dissidents could be brushed aside and shopkeepers could be assured that police would protect them. But there are no such assurances in Baghdad, where vigilante justice has become the norm. Residents are finding their personal freedoms and safety more limited each day.

The absence of law and order, coupled with the lack of basic services, is preventing people from shopping, attending school or spending an evening out. Now, simple pleasures such as watching a movie or drinking a beer are threatened.

Iraq, like Jordan and Egypt, has had a relatively tolerant attitude toward alcohol. Beginning in 1991, the sale of alcoholic beverages was banned in restaurants and hotels, but liquor stores were allowed and private consumption tolerated.

The city had a fairly vibrant night life on street after street lined with coffeehouses and theaters, many open till midnight. There are about 500 liquor stores in Baghdad, though many have shut their doors in recent days.

"We have a big problem," said Yonan Jamil Ibrahim, 60, a liquor store owner in an upscale neighborhood near downtown. "We got rid of Saddam Hussein and got Saddam Fartusi."

Ibrahim used to be a doctor. He was chairman of the allergic disease department at Baghdad's biggest hospital, but his sight began to fail in 1989, and he retired. For 14 years he has run a small liquor store filled with nearly every kind of alcohol.

There are bottles of French and Italian wines and Jack Daniel's whiskey, which cost $35, along with a single $200 bottle of 1983 Dom Perignon champagne. Bottles line floor-to-ceiling shelves on one side; beer is stacked high along the other.

He learned of Fartusi's statement from a newspaper, which said that liquor stores and theaters showing questionable films would be firebombed. He promptly took down the sign above the door that said "Alcohol Sales," leaving only "Ishtar Gate Bureau: import export."

Ibrahim now sits behind a metal desk at the far end of his store, facing the entrance, which is blocked by a metal sliding door, open just wide enough for one person to squeeze through. His store is crowded, but not with customers. Three armed guards stand between his desk and the door, and he keeps an AK-47 assault rifle propped against a case of beer.

"I don't even know how to use it," said Ibrahim, who has the air of a country doctor and squints through dark sunglasses because his failing eyes are sensitive to light. He has a wife and five children, all but one grown, who beg him to close.

"They cry for me every day," Ibrahim said. Two weeks ago, armed men followed him from his store. His 16-year-old son was driving the family Cadillac when a man in a Mercedes opened fire, spraying bullets just feet from its tires.

"I am doing nothing wrong by being here, and my guards used to be in the army so they are very clever," said Ibrahim, who is Christian. "If the people of Islam respect us, we will respect them. But I will not close."

Such defiance is also heard from Saadi, who has run Stars Cinema since 1977, playing American, Turkish, European and Indian films. Most would be considered relics today.

The theater has one screen and seating for several hundred people, who must cram into narrow metal chairs. A generator supplies enough power to light the lobby and show the movie on a projection system bought a few years ago from China but not enough to provide air conditioning.

Saadi shuffled around his empty theater yesterday in his sandals wondering how to handle the latest threats from the sheik. He has stopped advertising and said he would edit questionable parts from films if forced. Only 100 people paid the 25 cents yesterday to watch the Turkish love story, which had four showings.

"These movies last two or more hours, and there are just two minutes of sex," Saadi said. "People see those two minutes and say we are showing sex films. It's all a big deal over nothing."

The one American movie advertised in the lobby as "coming later" was American Forceful Impact, starring Warren Fleming. Judging from the poster, it appeared to have plenty of sex scenes.

Gazing at the poster, Saadi said, "I don't think Fartusi would like this movie."