The Iraqi border authorities and security forces are incapable of taking suitable measures to tackle drug smuggling and manufacturing. Due to the unstable situation in Iraq, the country has become a major passage for the smuggling of narcotic substances through Iraq to neighboring countries. This troubling issue has a long history predating Iraq’s invasion in 2003. At that time, an international coalition led by the United States of America invaded Iraq with the official objective of toppling the Baathist regime led by Saddam Hussein. In the end, the security vacuum caused by the american occupation significantly increased the drug smuggling issue. The law enforcement authorities’ incapacity to control all the border crossing allowed Iraq to become the perfect passage for drugs.

However, on Monday (March 1, 2021) the ministry of Interior announced the arrest of 14 suspects accused of drug trafficking. The ministry’s statement did not specify where those suspects came from nor which types of drugs were confiscated.

Describing the nature of the traffic, the announcement also pointed out that most of the smuggled drugs go to Saudi Arabia through the south of Iraq, adding that “the ministry of Interior has destroyed large quantities of drugs in recent years, especially hashish and opium.”

Referring to political conflicts and militias role in smuggling, the Iraqi writer, Kifah Muhammad tweeted: “While influential political factions in Baghdad are putting pressure on the Kurdistan Region by cutting off their federal employees salaries, the militias are using Iraqi territorial waters for drug, and oil smuggling operations.”

Smuggling regions and arrangements

Smugglers have developed many methods to bypass the border authorities. According to Basim, a nickname of a border guard officer, “[s]muggling can be classified according to whether the smugglers have previous arrangements with corrupt officials or not.” Basim made clear that connections between the political elite and the drug cartels operating in Iraq are frequent. He explained to the Red Line why smuggled drugs are such an important business in Iraq: “[D]rugs is all about money; it makes a big difference whether you sell cannabis, methamphetamines or opium extracts, the latter being more profitable which provides more connections and a better immunity from the law.”

The less powerful smugglers, however, make arrangements with low-ranking border guards, as Basim explained, while others smuggle through secret routes on the borders, or by hiding packs of drugs in food stocks and other goods at the regular checkpoints.

As for the northern borders areas, there are dozens of smuggling routes according to Ziyad  al-Oubaidi, the economic researcher, who told the Red Line: “the northern borders of Iraq with both Turkey and Iran are very difficult to control and distribute security forces to hold them due to the nature of the terrain in region.”

He also pointed out that drug smugglers are also taking advantage of the weak points on the borders in the south Iraqi region of Kurdistan all the way to Basra.

High rates of drugs abuse

The phenomenon includes most regions and towns to the point that drugs have become a genuine threat to Iraqi youth.

Member of Parliament (MP) Leila Fleyih revealed to the Red Line that “there are documented violations related to drugs in schools and universities,” indicating that “drug abuse situations have been recorded among middle and high school students.” The phenomena is threatening to devastate entire generations, according to Fleyih. Iraq has begun to transition from a country of transit to a hotbed of drug abuse.

Drugs in the neighbourhoods

In the capital, Baghdad, drug abuse rates indicate an unprecedented increase in recent years. In the past years, the cultivation of narcotic substances, including cannabis, has been noticed in some residential neighbourhoods. Ahmed, a nickname of one of the residents in al-Furat neighbourhood where the narcotic plants were found, says: “These plants have been present for years in our neighborhood’s public squares,” adding, “We did not know them. But some young people used them with shisha (hookah) and it turned out to be narcotic substances.” The security forces removed and destroyed the drugs found, after a doctor reported these plants to the authorities.

Many young people who became addicted to drugs are now trying to get rid of their habits after a traumatic experience that led them to endure major social, health, economic and psychological problems.

A young man, F.A., regularly visits a support center in Wasit governorate to receive treatment, after being addicted to drugs in past years. Like dozens of others like him, he is hoping to receive medical help from the specialized support centres across Iraq. “I lived through a horrible experience because of drugs, and I really hope that people can understand the pain these substances can create.”, F.A. shared.

Smuggling at crossing points

Iraqi border crossings are witnessing various smuggling operations of drugs and other materials, according to Omar al-Waili, head of the Iraqi Border Ports Authority, who told the Red Line: “The commission in charge of border crossings registered more than 3000 violations related to smuggling, including drug smuggling.”

The authorities are upgrading their monitoring procedures as Al-Waeli explains further: the border crossing authorities have begun to install advanced surveillance equipment aiming at reducing smuggling operations, including drugs smuggling into Iraq which has increased in recent years and began to destroy Iraqi youth. “

Security and strategic expert Ali Fadlallah says: “Drug abuse threatens Iraqis in many aspects, including the Iraqi national security through the increase in crime rates due to addiction to these toxins, as well as their impact on the Iraqi economic system through the decline in Iraqi youth’s productivity and motivation.”

Drugs fund terrorism

The defeat of the Islamic State organization (also known as ISIS) in 2017 did not simply disband the terrorist movement, rather, it activated a network of underground activities to keep its ranks operating. The terrorist group lost most areas it controlled as well as the oil fields, and agricultural taxes it funded its activities with. Hence today, ISIS is taking advantage of the weak spots on the Iraqi Syrian borders to smuggle drugs for finance.

Economic researcher Abbas al-Hajj revealed to the Red Line that ISIS sleeper cells present in Iraq’s western desert and in areas near the border with Syria are smuggling drugs to fund their criminal activities. Al-Hajj told the Red Line: “Drug smuggling has become a major source of funding for ISIS in the western cities of Iraq, especially after the World Banks took measures to cut off the terrorist organization.”

Mr. Al-Hajj pointed out that there was a need to intensify security efforts in the border strip with Syria and Jordan as well as to increase the number of forces on the ground to monitor terrorists activities and drug smuggling cells, in order to protect society from this dangerous scourge.”

High crime rates

Drug consumption in recent years has significantly increased the rate of criminal activities in Iraq, not to mention the suicide rates that were monitored by the Iraqi authorities without any solutions mentioned by the concerned authorities, as Iraqi experts noticed.

Professor Idris Al-Khalisi, a specialist in psychological sciences at Baghdad University, emphasized on the link between murder, theft, domestic violence and the consumption of narcotic, pointing out that “drugs have psychological and mental effects on humans, Therefore, they often lead to crime.”

The large spread of drugs in Iraq may not have been a major concern for the Iraqi government as the measures taken (police raids, border controls…) do not reach the required level of investment. However, the challenge is still ongoing and the authorities are facing a major test on how to deal with the issue. 

Economic problems, lack of opportunities, rising unemployment rates, lack of social development projects have led Iraqi youth to turn to drugs to escape from the bitter reality that they have lived for years without immediate or even long-term solutions.

VIAMohammed Al-Awad - Baghdad