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SADDAM IMPOSES A BAN ON ALCOHOL SALES

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With little food available after four years of sanctions, eating out in Baghdad is not much fun these days. But President Saddam Hussein made it even gloomier recently by abruptly banning the sale of alcohol in hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants.

Drinking at home is still permitted. But in the future only members of the minority Christian population and other non-Muslims will be allowed to stock alcohol in stores, which must be at least 200 yards from any mosque.As usual in this secretive country, Saddam offered no explanation for a move that runs contrary to the secular principles his governing Baath Party has always espoused in the past.

But the decision infuriated his eldest son, Udai, who publicly criticized it in his newspaper Babil, saying banning alcohol encourages Islamic fundamentalism and would wreck Baghdad's reputation as a comfortable, easygoing city.

In the view of many diplomats and Iraqis, the banning of alcohol is another sign of Saddam's growing frustration with economic sanctions as they grind away at Iraqi living standards. It also reflects a new tendency to involve himself personally in trying to improve living conditions, an effort that so far has had meager results.

Before the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Johnny Walker Black was almost the national drink, but only the very rich can afford to drink Scotch these days. And at least part of Saddam's purpose in banning the public consumption of alcohol, many Iraqis believe, is to appease an impoverished middle class resentful of the speculators and professional criminals who alone have the money to drink Johnny Walker in Baghdad's nightclubs, restaurants and bars.

Another, more cynical explanation circulating among diplomats is that Udai Hussein, who is believed to have a monopoly on Scotch imports into Iraq, plans to use the new licensing system to tighten his control over the trade.

Of course, the ban on alcohol also appeals to the religious classes and particularly the traditionally dissident southern Shiite Muslims, who outnumber the president's Sunni power base in the center of the country.

And as such it represents a continuation of the gradual Islamization of the government under way for several years now, diplomats point out, as Saddam seeks to build support wherever he can find it.

In 1988, at the end of his disastrous war against Iran, he opened an Islamic university in Baghdad. "He was tired of being branded as apostate by the clerics in Tehran," a Muslim diplomat said.

Last summer compulsory religious education was introduced into Iraqi schools. Nightclubs accused of harboring prostitutes were closed down. And Baghdad made an unsuccessful appeal to Saudi Arabia to unfreeze funds held in Saudi banks so it could import 10 million copies of the Koran.

There is no evidence that the increasing economic hardship of ordinary people is yet seriously weakening the president's grip on power, diplomats and Iraqis all insist.

But Saddam is trying to tighten his control of the armed forces by grooming Udai Hussein to take over as defense minister.