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Iraq is now part of the Balkan route used by drug smugglers

A member of the Iraqi Kurdish security forces stands next to seized drug before its destruction on October 29, 2013 in the Iraqi northern city of Arbil. [SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images]
A member of the Iraqi Kurdish security forces stands next to seized drug before its destruction on October 29, 2013 in the Iraqi northern city of Arbil. [SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images]

Almost daily, the security authorities in Iraq announce the arrest of drug smugglers and users, especially in Baghdad, as well as Basra in the south and Diyala on the Iraq-Iran border. On 20 June, the Baghdad Operations Command arrested six people accused of using narcotics and in possession of crystal meth, the popular name for methamphetamine, a powerful and rapidly addictive stimulant. A day earlier, units from the Iraqi National Intelligence Service in the Ministry of the Interior arrested two drug smugglers in possession of 10 kilograms of hashish in Basra. The service also announced the arrest of a dealer and transporter of narcotics from a neighbouring country in Basra. We can conclude from such announcements that there is a growing drug problem that is being monitored; that drug smugglers and users are treated in the same way; and that neighbouring countries have a role in the spread of this problem, which is dealt with as a "security" issue.

How it is dealt with raises many questions that have not been addressed despite the many reports and local and international press coverage. These questions revolve around who benefits from planting and spreading the problem, as well as the reasons for its rapid spread in a country that was completely clean until its invasion in 2003. While Iraq was a transit point for the passage of drugs in the early years of the occupation due to the lawlessness and dismantling of the state, why is it now a consumer and producer of narcotics?

According to the 2014 report "Drug and Alcohol Use in Iraq: Findings of the Inaugural Iraqi Community Epidemiological Workgroup", "The data suggests that the most commonly used substances are alcohol, hashish and prescription drugs. New drugs in Iraq's drug use scene include the amphetamine-type substances 'Captagon' and crystal methamphetamine, and the painkiller tramadol. Seizures of Captagon, methamphetamine, Afghan opium, teriac (a crude form of opium), and heroin at border crossings may indicate that these substances are becoming more popular." This indicates that the catastrophe will only intensify with time despite the security forces announcing successful operations. Where does the flaw lie?

There are many reasons for the spread of drug smuggling and consumption, including the fact that conflict zones are more open than others to such trade, the economic returns of which are equivalent to the manufacture of arms. Moreover, widespread corruption among officials is its backbone. It is noticeable that this aspect is neglected when addressing the systematic and institutional corruption in Iraq, where the focus is on the vast economic corruption in the oil sector. If drugs are mentioned, it is in the context of an "imported" problem without mentioning who is responsible for importing the problem and how it is sustained as a tool to control the people and the future of the country. It is rarely viewed from the aspect of the economy's illegal role in aggravating and fuelling sectarian and national conflicts within Iraq. Moreover, everyone overlooks the experiences of other nations whose illegitimate economies and the groups that thrive on them are highly organised, able to adapt and prone to expansion.

READ: Iraq, Saudi Arabia to discuss joint border security 

It is true that high unemployment, despair, reduced opportunities, displacement and instability, and the wars and occupations that Iraq has experienced — and the armed conflict and terrorism it continues to experience — make the general population, and the youth and marginalised groups in particular, more accepting of drug abuse as well as smuggling, trafficking and production in order to earn money. There is also a degree of involvement by government officials seeking to take a cut or gain influence. This aspect is overlooked.

In his study "Making War: Conflict Zones and Their Implications for Drug Policy", researcher Tuesday Reitano discusses what he calls the "violent-governance paradigm" during the period of conflict and armed conflict, "where political leverage is achieved through access to resources that have value or can be monetised; where resources buy the support of local communities through the provision of livelihoods and access to existing political influence (through corruption); and where resources also buy access to arms and foot soldiers (militias, armies or paid security or 'heavies'), which in turn can be used to pressure or attack the opposition, erode a monopoly on violence, secure control of territory and assets, or extort support from local populations."

Benefitting from the drug trade is not limited to government agencies; it extends to militias of all kinds and terrorist organisations. The Norwegian Centre for Global Analyses (RHIPTO) estimates that drug trafficking revenues represent 28 per cent of such groups' income in conflict areas. Most of this revenue comes not from the production or distribution of drugs, or from other direct means of participating in the drug trade, but from the taxation of drugs that pass through the territory controlled by these groups. This highlights the importance of Iraq as a crossing point on the infamous Balkan route used by smugglers, with its long and open borders with Iran in addition to Turkey and Syria on one side and the Gulf states on the other. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, heroin sourced in Afghanistan is smuggled to Iran, either directly or through Pakistan, and from there to Iraq, through Basra and Erbil, and on to Turkey and Jordan.

READ: Turkey seized $18.7bn worth of drugs in 2020 

Iraq's inclusion along the Balkan route helps Iran, in particular, to break the economic blockade imposed by the United States, and provides a great financial return to the militias and security forces that operate the border crossings. This is especially since the revenues of the drug trade exceed $1 billion annually, and the militia members themselves, as well as 50 per cent of the security forces (The New York Times – 25 October, 2010), are addicted to drinking alcohol and using drugs such as teriac, crystal meth and Captagon pills. This is how they get the Dutch courage to hustle and overcome moral constraints and perhaps explains their unjustified brutality. Norman Oheler, the author of Drugs in Nazi Germany, pointed out that the Nazi regime provided its soldiers with crystal Meth-like pills to help them become fighting machines. It is known that the use of drugs has been widespread among US forces in all of their wars, especially since Vietnam, and by mercenaries and security contractors, as was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Drug-financed conflict is not new. Drugs are valued and highly profitable commodities that are transported relatively easily, especially in a country whose borders are porous or managed by those profiting from the trade. The ongoing power struggle and the suppression of dissent, as seen in Iraq, means that people still profit from the drug trade, which is an argument for the militarisation of local police forces. No matter how many statements it publishes about the arrest of drug addicts and dealers, the current government will not be able to put an end to the problem because it is itself part of the problem.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi 21 June 2021 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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