Drugs seized by anti-drug forces in Afghanistan; some of this would have ended up in Iraq. (photo: SAC Neil Chapman (RAF))
Drug trafficking has been a popular trade in the southern province of Maysan since the 1990s.
“We needed to make money because of the international sanctions against Iraq [during Saddam Hussein’s regime],” explains Mohammed Mujbel, a former drug trafficker who spent several years in prison here. “Saddam was busy with the opposition inside Iraq and Iran was busy with Saddam. It was a big opportunity to make profits because those in the Gulf countries used to buy a lot from us.”
“The work wasn’t easy,” Mujbel admits. “We were making a lot of money but our lives were always in danger. The parties that opposed Saddam were using the border areas as shelters and they would also try and stop us from smuggling drugs. But we managed to do it anyway – inside donkey saddles, cans of food and toys.”
These days drugs come in by car, motorbike and truck, Mujbel says. “The only things that haven’t changed are the smuggling routes on the back roads.”
The drug smugglers bring the drugs from Iran to the Persian Gulf countries, and possibly onto Europe, via the provinces of Dhi Qar or Basra, or alternatively Najaf and Muthanna provinces, which share a desert border with Saudi Arabia. The drugs often originate in Afghanistan.
And the smugglers are still making good money. They usually sell their wares for at least six times as much as they cost.
“There are a lot of drug smugglers in this district,” says one resident, Alwan al-Miryani. “They sell hashish, pills and amphetamines. They all travel a long distance with their cargo, driving and walking, sometimes for as long as six hours.”
Local police say it’s a difficult and dangerous task trying to stop this trade. In the Amara district the drug smugglers are often members of the tribes living in the area. The drug trade started to grow in southern Iraq several years ago, during times of increased unrest and lawlessness, and it’s never gone away – now it is becoming the major source of conflict between the tribes in the smuggling areas.
“During the last two months, 30 arrest warrants were issued,” one senior officer in the local police told NIQASH on condition of anonymity. “And many attempts to smuggle drugs were uncovered, including one truck supposedly transporting construction materials that was actually carrying several dozen kilograms of drugs at the Sheeb crossing [between Iraq and Iran].”
However thanks to the drug smugglers’ tribal connections, things are always difficult, the officer said.
“The tribes then interfere and force us to release the smugglers. Police are harassed and threatened by both the drug traffickers and the tribes. And we are afraid we might be killed. Recently one of the members of this task force was targeted by a car bomb right outside his home. It was a message telling him not to go after the drug smugglers,” he suggests.
Iraq is not only a thoroughfare for drugs, it has also become a marketplace. The Maysan police say that there has been a steady increase in drug use, and drug addicts, among local young people since 2008.
“An increasing number of young people are becoming addicted,” confirms Bassam al-Saadi, who heads a local drug education campaign in Maysan. “It’s a phenomenon that is widespread in Maysan society.”
And it doesn’t seem like a trend that is going to be curtailed any time soon. NIQASH was present at a police interrogation of one man arrested on suspicion of drug smuggling: Karim Mohammed was caught carrying three kilograms of hashish and more than 300 pills.
But Mohammed didn’t seem to care about being caught red handed – he was proud of his work and said he would continue to smuggle drugs because of the big profits he could make.