Armed mobs destroying Baghdad-area distilleries

An armed guard patrols the grounds of the Al-Abraj alcohol factory in Baquba. One day after this photo was taken, the factory was overrun by  an armed mob, looted and partially destroyed. Workers had been ordered by radical clerics in recent weeks to stop producing alcohol. (Noah Addis)

BAGHDAD — Five men stood in a circle outside police headquarters here yesterday, somberly comparing notes on the day’s devastation.

“Any dead?” Daniel Joseph asked.

“Two guards were killed,” Albert Paul Younan replied.

“I lost three,” Joseph said.

“What about the factory?” another man asked.

“Destroyed,” Joseph said. “What they couldn’t take, they burned.”

The men, all owners or managers of alcohol distilleries outside Baghdad, had been ordered by a radical Muslim cleric two weeks ago to never produce liquor again. Last week, the men said, they appealed to the Iraqi police and the U.S. military for protection.

It never came. Early Monday, the attackers did. In what the owners and distillery guards described as an organized strike, scores of men armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades targeted factory after factory along a desolate stretch of road in Baquba, 20 miles north of the capital.

Seven distilleries were badly damaged in the attacks, with up to a dozen of the plants’ defenders killed, the owners and guards said. Following the fight, hundreds of looters moved in, dragging away machinery, tools and the possessions of workers who lived in the compounds.

The looting, which continued yesterday, was accompanied by wanton destruction, with some people using backhoes to smash walls and others setting fire to buildings, the owners and guards said.

While the accounts could not be independently verified because of sporadic shooting along the road to Baquba, Sgt. First Class Ronald Suber, a spokesman for the U.S. military police operating in Baghdad, confirmed that at least four distilleries were damaged and that up to 1,000 looters, armed with an assortment of weapons, had been seen stripping the plants. Suber said he could not confirm the deaths of the guards.

A small contingent of U.S. troops and Iraqi police surveyed the damage yesterday morning. Younan, who accompanied them, said the soldiers were too few in number to stop the destruction and too late to save the livelihoods of the factories’ owners and employees.

“We told them this would happen,” said Younan, 42, manager of the Al-Abraj distillery. “Why didn’t they listen? People are dead, and everything is destroyed.”

Albert Paul Younan, manager of the Al-Abraj alcohol factory, speaks during an interview in his warehouse. The factory was destroyed a day later. (Noah Addis)

Younan was first interviewed by The Star-Ledger on Sunday. His comments detailing the threats against the factories and his efforts to obtain help from the U.S. military were published yesterday.

He said he approached an American military commander at a United Nations facility in Baghdad last week. The commander, Younan said, told him that U.S. troops were stretched too thin to provide constant protection and that the factory owners would have to defend their facilities themselves.

Separately, Younan said, he spoke with the fledgling Baghdad police force, which referred him back to the U.S. military.

Army Capt. Steven Caruso, who oversees military police patrols in Baghdad, said he was unaware of Younan’s previous appeal for help and could not comment on it directly.

In general, he said, U.S. troops are doing all that they can with limited means to restore order in and around Baghdad, which has seen a dramatic increase in violent crime since the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime last month.

Currently, just eight teams of MPs are assigned to patrol the capital, a sprawling city of 4.5 million people. The first night patrols were scheduled to begin late yesterday, Caruso said. He added that requests for help far outstrip the availability of soldiers to respond.

“We get a thousand of these complaints every day,” Caruso said. “With the patrols we have running now, we can’t get out to all of them.”

To the factory owners, that answer is unsatisfactory.

“President Bush keeps promising security and democracy,” said Joseph, 30, owner of the Thurthar plant in Baquba. “Mr. Bush is a big liar. There is no security here. Now I want Saddam’s system to come back. We were safer before.”

Joseph and other owners trace their troubles to radical elements within Iraq’s Shi’a Muslim majority, brutally repressed under Saddam. In recent weeks, resurgent Shi’a clerics, accompanied by armed men, have visited the distilleries and issued orders to cease production of liquor, which is banned under a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Threats also were issued to liquor stores in and around Baghdad.

Not all Muslims object to alcoholic beverages, and under Saddam’s regime their sale was legal. The business was controlled mostly by Iraq’s Christian minority.

The owners of the factories, which had been shuttered since the war, said they agreed to produce only medicinal alcohol. Despite their compliance, the owners said, the factories had come under fire repeatedly, leading up to their destruction Monday and yesterday.

Shokri Saad, center, worked as a guard at the Naba-Al-Safi distillery in Baquba. He said he  had no choice but to flee when hundreds of armed attackers struck Monday. (Noah Addis)

Shokri Saad, 39, was among the guards at the Naba Al-Safi distillery when the attackers struck Monday morning.

“We resisted them before,” Saad said. “But this time there were too many. They had machine guns, RPGs and grenades. We had to run.”

Khathem Essa, 31, another guard at the facility, said some of the men used construction vehicles and backhoes to break through the plant’s concrete walls.

“They destroyed everything,” Essa said. “Maybe next time they will steal the American tanks.”

The guards recounted their stories outside the offices of a Baghdad liquor distributor, where several angry owners congregated yesterday.

“We’ve worked all our lives to get to this position,” said Majid Mikael, 40, a co-owner of Naba Al-Safi, which means “clear spring.” “And now, overnight, it’s gone. Who do we go to for help? No one wants to take responsibility in Iraq.”

Nearby, Tafiq Al-Magdesi, the liquor distributorship’s owner, said he would try to sell his business and, if possible, leave Iraq for good.

“We got rid of one Saddam,” he said. “Now we have 1,000 Saddams.”

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