x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Drugs a draw for smugglers

Smugglers see opportunity in supplying a population that is increasingly turning to narcotics to cope with daily life.

Kut // For years after the US-led invasion, Abu Ali smuggled weapons into Iraq, crossing the minefields from Iran with supplies for the militias fighting American troops. It was dangerous work, but lucrative enough to make it worth the risks. By 2008 the bottom had fallen out of the arms-smuggling trade. The Shiite militants were smashed by the Iraqi army and Abu Ali's clients no longer needed materiel.

Instead, he took up work as a farmer, scratching a living from the earth in Wasit province, south of Baghdad. After severe drought and with the economy still weak, the 28-year-old is now thinking of going back to smuggling, this time drugs instead of guns. "There seems to be no way of making a living in an honest or clean way here," he said, speaking on the condition that his full name be concealed. "I don't want to be a drug smuggler. I know it's wrong, but I need to make money if I want a family, if I want a life."

As a farmhand in the rice fields, Abu Ali said his monthly earnings amounted to a few hundred dollars, not enough to live on. Trafficking drugs would see that income rise to some US$10,000 (Dh36,700) a month, he estimated. "I know drugs will hurt innocent people because they're the ones who will get addicted to them," he said. "But I'm not wealthy and smuggling is what I know how to do. I can work as a smuggler from time to time and earn a good living."

Abu Ali said he learnt the secret routes from his father, who would walk him through the heavily mined border area with Iran during the decade of UN sanctions after Iraq invaded Kuwait. With imports heavily restricted, the two would carry in foodstuffs and medicines, paying off Iraqi security officials who knew about their trips. His father was dead when, in 2004, the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia then at war with US forces, approached him and asked if he could supply them. Believing he was helping resist foreign occupation as well as earning a living, he agreed and began shipping in plastic explosives and trigger mechanisms for bombs.

Although his account cannot be independently verified, the US military has long claimed that Iranian weapons were being used on the Iraq battlefield against their troops, including advanced explosives capable of destroying the latest armoured vehicles. "The American patrols would sometimes get close to me on the border but they would never follow anyone into the mines or too close to Iran," Abu Ali said. "As long as I didn't stray off the path, I would be OK.

"Now it might be more difficult because they have stronger border patrols and the Iraqi security forces are stronger. They have better intelligence than the Americans did." Drug smuggling from Iran and drug abuse in Iraq have been on the rise since the 2003 invasion, according to international agencies such as the UN's narcotics control board. At the height of the sectarian civil war in 2007, abuse of drugs, particularly prescription drugs, was rife in parts of the country.

As Islamic extremists forced alcohol off the streets in urban areas such as Baghdad and Basra, doctors said rising numbers of people turned to pills to help them cope with the emotional strains of day-to-day brutality. The health ministry launched a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of drug use, but it was hardly a priority for a government battling for its own survival. Unofficial figures circulating in the ministry of health in 2007 estimated that as much as five per cent of the population of Maysan province, which borders Iran, were abusing drugs.

In 2005, security forces in Najaf seized a $10 million shipment of hashish, en route from Iran to Saudi Arabia. Such hauls had previously been unheard of. "In the last three years we caught eight smugglers bringing in weapons from Iran and now there are growing reports of drugs smuggling," said Aziz al Amara, the head of Wasit province's Swat police unit. "We have put out patrols and are doing what we can to catch them.

"The weapons smuggling was a problem but security is much better and it is drugs that are now the problem. We're going to be doing more and more work to stop drugs dealers." Another former weapons smuggler told The National he too was planning to start transporting in drugs from Iran. "I have a sick mother and I make $300 a month as a farmer," he said, asking to be identified only as Abu Jasim. "I wanted to give up smuggling but it's impossible to survive. I tried to settle down to have a normal life and it hasn't been a success. All I have is poverty."

Border security had improved in recent years, he said, with US forces monitoring the frontier and Iraqi government troops better organised and better trained. "I know there are patrols out looking for us but I've taken the risk before when I needed the money and it looks as if I'll start doing it again. I don't have other options, just this." @Email:nlatif@thenational.ae