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.
"Of course not, we would kill them," he said. "Everything about it is wrong."
That long-standing stigma here surrounding narcotics use discourages addicts from seeking help, making it hard for the government to gather data on drug use and addiction, said Sirwan K. Ali, a psychiatrist at the Health Ministry who manages Iraq's substance abuse control program.
"The drug problem in Iraq is like the early part of an epidemic, a rising storm, and if it increases we cannot withstand the severity because we have no infrastructure to control it, no experience in treating it," he said. "But it is almost impossible for us to know the size of the problem because of the security situation and because it is kept in the dark. Until recently, these things were not spoken about."
Even in the absence of much hard data, the government is taking steps it hopes will prevent the flow of drugs from escalating. When it reestablished capital punishment last year, it made drug dealing the only nonviolent crime punishable by death. The Health Ministry has established committees in each province to monitor what Ali called a "sharp rise" in addiction rates and smuggling.
Last November, when the ministry held its first conference on illegal drugs, it published an illustrated book, "Drugs and Their Influence on Society," which compiled national statistics on arrests and hospitalizations. A drawing on the back cover showed a young man crouching with an agonized expression as a demonic figure emerged from the smoke of his cigarette.
But the assembled data reflected only a fraction of Iraq's drug problem because reporting from provincial health authorities and police was sporadic, Ali said. For example, from May to November 2004, police nationwide reported only nine smuggling incidents and 24 cases of people taking illegal drugs.
But police in several Iraqi provinces say drug arrests have become increasingly common in cities, particularly in Baghdad, Iraq's largest city with about 5 million inhabitants, and in places frequented by religious pilgrims from abroad such as Najaf and Karbala, which are home to Shiite Muslim shrines. Ghazali, the Najaf border police chief, said drug smugglers often bury their contraband in the desert before transporting it into Saudi Arabia.
In its statement last month, the International Narcotics Control Board said that authorities in Jordan had noted a major increase in drug trafficking from Iraq over the previous year and that in April, 3 million pills of Fenethylline, a stimulant with effects similar to amphetamines, had been seized at the Iraqi border. "Significant quantities" of cannabis resin and chemicals used to manufacture heroin had also been discovered, the statement said.
For Iraq's security forces, perhaps the most unsettling recent incident came in late May, when six Iranians were arrested in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah with what police said were large quantities of an unspecified type of narcotics. About 50 gallons of a material described in local news reports as "a precursor to explosives" were also found at the scene, Iraq's al-Watan daily newspaper reported.
Last October, 21 Iranians and Afghans were arrested while trying to enter Iraq with weapons and illegal drugs in their possession, border police in Sulaymaniyah said.
"All of this is because the borders are not well protected," said Waleed Sharka, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly and one of the few politicians to speak out publicly on the issue. "Now the terrorists are bringing the drugs with them."
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.