Iraq Used For Transit Of Drugs, Officials Say

Iraqi police in February displayed weapons found when they arrested six men for allegedly smuggling drugs from neighboring Iran.
Iraqi police in February displayed weapons found when they arrested six men for allegedly smuggling drugs from neighboring Iran. (By Nabil Al Jurani -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 12, 2005

BAGHDAD -- The manager of the addiction unit at Baghdad's largest treatment center for substance abusers took a long drag from his Craven cigarette and offered his assessment of the drug problem in Iraq.

"There is no drug problem in Iraq," said Abbas Fadhil Mahdi, a former brigadier general in Saddam Hussein's army who is now a psychiatrist at the capital's Ibn Rushud hospital.

"We have immunity against addiction," he continued. "Islam protects people from indulging in such illicit, harmful intake of substances. And unlike in the West and in America, we have cohesive and supportive extended families. So there is no problem with drugs."

Iraqi government officials and a U.N. agency that monitors drug trafficking disagree. Hamid Ghodse, president of the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board, said that since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has become a transit point in the flow of hashish and heroin from Iran and Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of opium poppies, to Persian Gulf countries and Europe.

Under Hussein's authoritarian rule, alcoholism and addiction to medications such as Valium were prevalent, health officials here say. The use of illegal drugs, a subject not discussed publicly, was thought to be rare. But since the invasion, the same porous borders that U.S. and Iraqi officials describe as conduits for foreign insurgents have become well-traveled smuggling routes for drug traffickers, according to U.N. and government officials. As a result, the Health Ministry says, addiction rates are climbing steadily.

High-profile drug busts, once unheard of here, are becoming more common. On Wednesday night in the southern province of Najaf, authorities arrested 20 smugglers trying to move more than 1,500 pounds of hashish into Saudi Arabia using pickup trucks packed with large barrels, according to Brig. Gen. Hussein Ghazali, the border police chief. The street value of the drugs, he said, was nearly $10 million.

"The pattern is similar to what we have seen in other post-conflict situations," Ghodse said at a recent news conference. "Whether it is due to war or disaster, weakening of border controls and security infrastructure make countries into convenient logistic and transit points, not only for international terrorists and militants but also for drug traffickers. It is therefore all the more important that both the government of Iraq as well as the international community act swiftly and take preventive measures before the situation escalates."

A statement released by Ghodse's agency in May said "cases of drug-related intoxication are on the rise in hospitals in Baghdad and around the country."

But interviews with health officials here, and a visit with Mahdi, his patients and his staff at the treatment center's 10-bed inpatient ward, indicate that few, if any, drug addicts are seeking medical help and that the Hussein-era propensity to play down the problem remains.

Only three of the beds were occupied, two by alcoholics and one by a user of Artane, a prescription muscle relaxant used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. In his two years at the facility, Mahdi said, he had not encountered a single patient addicted to narcotics.

"They want to exaggerate that there are addicts on many drugs," he said of the Iraqi government. "It's for political reasons, so they can say the countries surrounding Iraq don't work to stop smuggling."

One of the patients on the addiction ward, Thamir Kamil Ghassab, 36, said he had checked himself in to the hospital and stayed for eight days because he was drinking more than a pint a day of arrack, a Middle Eastern liquor. He also popped Artane pills, he said. But when asked if he knew of anyone who took narcotics, he recoiled.

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