SULAIMANI, Iraq, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- In recent weeks, health inspectors throughout northern Iraq have forced the temporary closure of hundreds of kebab shops and restaurants for uncleanliness and selling expired food.
The shuttered restaurants include some of the most famous and popular places in Sulaimani, a city of 1.5 million people in Iraqi Kurdistan. In a region where kebab is a daily staple, the wave of censures has sent tremors through the restaurant industry, even as patrons acknowledge the northern Iraq's reputation for unsanitary eating conditions.
Mahdi Abdulla, a 24-year-old student at the American University of Iraq, was recently taken to the hospital for vomiting and diarrhea after eating at a kebab restaurant.
"I have decided to cook at the dormitory because I have strong doubts about the restaurants here," he said.
The regulatory crackdown in Sulaimani is part of a shift throughout Iraq Kurdistan away from terrorism and toward domestic issues. In the past decade, political instability in the region put issues such as restaurant oversight on the back burner. But as the economy in northern Iraq improves and the tourism industry grows, there is new pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government to prioritize public health.
The medical industry has also become subject to government attention. Officials recently burned loads of expired medicines in the city and surrounding towns.
But the food industry continues to receive the most scrutiny.
Soran Abd-alghafur, one of the government-appointed inspectors in Sulaimani, told Chawder, a local newspaper, that in Sulaimani nearly 40 restaurants, bakeries and barbers were fined for failing hygiene inspections since June and 25 restaurants and kebab shops have been temporarily closed.
To get a passing grade and reopen, restaurateurs have to standardize their practices, showing they have tossed out expired foods, provide clean water and, in some cases, have redecorated their restaurants.
Restaurant owners have expressed concern over the new regulations.
"We are under a great pressure because if they shut down our shops they will hang a sign on the door of our shops to let the public know that this restaurant is shut down due to lack of sanitary conditions," said Wali Ali, the owner of Wali, a famous kebab shop in Sulaimani. "As a result, our reputation will be notoriously damaged."
Others have called the government's actions unreasonable and a publicity stunt.
"It is for more than 20 years that I manage this kebab shop," said Qadir Mohammed, owner of Kebab Qadir. "No one has ever complained about our food. It is entirely unreasonable to harm our reputation, especially by showing the closure on TV."
Qadir said his business exceeds sanitation requirements.
"I think they did it to show off and to make other small businesses afraid of them," he said.
Many locals in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, say that, despite the inconvenience of not being able to eat out while their favorite restaurants make changes, their hometown has developed an unsavory reputation for unsanitary conditions. Fatima Omer, a housewife from Rania, is haunted by the memory of seeing mouse feces on her rice in a restaurant.
"From then on, I prefer cooking at home," she said. "I never want to eat outside even when I hang out with my husband because the food they offer is without doubt unhealthy."