Members of the Iraqi Kurdish security forces pour gasoline over a seized drug haul before they burn it in the northern city of Arbil in 2013. Photo: Safin Hamed / AFP

In less than a decade, Iraq has been transformed from a transit country for illicit drugs into a consumer and manufacturer. The industry seems to be expanding as Iraqi courts handle about 30 drug-related cases daily.

Prior to the April 2003 US invasion, illicit drug activity was limited in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime imposed harsh penalties for both dealers and users, including the death penalty. The situation changed after the fall of the dictatorial regime.

Now, the Interior Ministry issues weekly statements about counter-narcotics operations, announcing the apprehension of traffickers and users. The endless crackdown reveals the extent of the security apparatus’ struggle with the problem.

In addition to the deterioration of social conditions resulting from increasing unemployment and poverty, several factors have led to this escalation, according to judges and Iraqi members of parliament. They are state corruption, the weakness of the security apparatus and a lack of training for its personnel, and the absence of rehabilitation centers for drug addicts.

Drug history

While domestic drug use was prohibited during the Saddam years, Baghdad allowed narcotics to pass through to rival capitals for nefarious reasons.

“Saddam Hussein’s regime used drugs as a card for political pressure against some Gulf countries,” says Hakem al-Zamly, the former head of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee. Drugs coming from Iran used to be trafficked through the desert in the southwestern Iraqi province of Muthanna to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

The situation has since changed drastically. After the invasion in 2003, the security apparatus collapsed, and Iraq’s borders in all directions became open for the trafficking of all kinds of drugs, to be transported to Gulf countries using different methods, some of them comical.

In mid-2017, Kuwaiti customs authorities busted a trafficking network that transported drugs to Kuwait using bags tied to the legs of homing pigeons. In December 2018, Kuwaiti authorities intercepted a drone coming from Iraq carrying pills.

Crystal methamphetamine, an addictive chemical that damages users’ organs, is the most common drug found in Iraq. Other drugs sold in Iraq include hashish, opium and captagon (fenethylline) pills.

International mafias

Politician Hakem Al-Zamly, who worked on the drugs issue during his term in the last parliament, says he identified several flaws in the state’s counter-narcotics operations, including a lack of oversight and lenient treatment of the biggest traffickers.

“Drug dealing is expanding in Iraq to the extent that some drug dealers have relations to international drug trade mafias in South America and Eastern Europe. Iraq is on the verge of turning into a drug hub not only in the Middle East but in the world,” said Zamly, a leading member of the Sadr political movement, led by the Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. 

Zamly is not exaggerating. Large quantities of drugs are regularly seized on Iraq’s borders. In a recent operation, the politician recounts, half a ton of cocaine was found hidden in a shipment of bananas from Ecuador.

“The drug dealer involved got out on bail, statements were changed, and he was acquitted in the case,” Zamly told Asia Times.

Source countries

The drug transportation web both inside and outside Iraq is complex, involving a large number of countries. Traffickers in Syria, with its precarious security situation, export drugs produced in its territory, as well as from Lebanon, to Iraq.

Iran is the biggest contributor to the drug problem in Iraq; Iranian producers export their drugs to the country, and Iranian intermediaries arrange for the transportation of Afghan drugs to southern Iraq, specifically the Persian Gulf port city of Basra.

“Drugs from most of these countries end up in Iraq before being smuggled to Gulf countries and Turkey, and from there it finds its way to regional and world markets,” Zamly said.

Behind this expanding trade lies a large network of individuals who have strong connections with politicians, local communities, and armed factions in Iraq.

In early 2018, Iraqi security forces arrested three major drug smugglers in Baghdad, and it soon emerged that one of them was the son of the governor of Najaf province, Loay al-Yasry. The operation revealed the missing link between the drug trade and politics in Iraq, but no one dared to pursue the case, and the news was buried.

Drug manufacturing 

The drug problem in Iraq is not limited to smuggling. Security forces occasionally discover small methamphetamine laboratories in central and southern Iraq. However, there are no available statistics on the number of laboratories and the volume they produce. A source at the Iraqi Interior Ministry said: “These labs are usually set up inside houses, and most of them are centered in Al-Basra and Baghdad.” Zamly added that poor manufacturing methods make the local methamphetamine potentially lethal for users.

In the provinces of Misan, Diwaniya and Sulaymaniyah, farmers have been caught producing opium and hashish for sale at local markets.

Lenient laws

Judges specializing in drug cases assert that the drug distribution networks in Iraq are widespread and extend from four major intermediaries. However, the Interior Ministry does not possess a database for monitoring these networks. A source at the Interior Ministry told Asia Times that: “We have databases for junior traders and movers, but no oversight on the major traders.”

The Iraqi parliament attempted to curb the growing trade with a law passed in 2017 that downgraded the offense of drug use from a felony to a misdemeanor while maintaining harsh penalties for dealers. 

Experts in Iraq say that the big challenge is to both contain the drug industry and treat addicts. Several recent suicides in the south have been blamed on drug use, but there are no rehabilitation centers in the region.

The pervasiveness of illicit drugs in Iraq and the number of drug-related court cases suggest there are big, powerful interests maintaining the trade, likely concealed by money laundering and funding terrorism. “There are massive amounts of money involved, so this trade is being protected by political parties,” said Zamly. 

However, due to corruption, there have been no court cases related to the funding of drug-related activity through banks or money transfer offices, as judge Iyad Mohsen Damd stated at a conference in 2017.

A committee was formed to study the underlying reasons for the expansion of drug use and the drug industry in Iraq. It found that consecutive Iraqi governments have failed to tackle the core reasons for widespread drug use, poverty and unemployment, which impact people between 16 and 35 years of age the most profoundly. It also found that drug dealers target areas suffering from poverty, unemployment, insecurity, and social instability.

The banning of alcoholic drinks in the central and southern provinces was also believed to have contributed to the increased use of drugs, which are more available than alcohol.

However, political parties do not see a correlation, and have blamed the problem on more nebulous reasons. MP Sabah al-Okeily said,  “Drugs are a conspiracy from the outside against Iraq.” He blamed the spike in drug use among the youth on lagging religious adherence. 

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