War-torn Iraq is emerging as a key conduit in the global drugs trade as criminal gangs exploit its porous border with Iran to channel their illicit goods to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
The Iraqi authorities say that since the 2003 US-led invasion the trade in illegal opiates, cannabis and synthetic pharmaceuticals has risen steadily, and that many drugs originating in Afghanistan enter Iraq via Iran.
AdvertisementStatistics are hard to come by in devastated Iraq, but the Baghdad government says a rising number of traffickers are being caught at border crossings with Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
"A large numbers of smugglers are being arrested," interior ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf told AFP, adding that many were being detained in the southern Iraqi provinces of Basra and Maysan.
Maysan's capital Amara, a stone's throw from the Iranian border, is suspected by the authorities of being a growing drug-trafficking hub for the Gulf states and north towards the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
Sixty kilometres (35 miles) south of Amara, the long reeds of the al-Ezeir marshes that extend well inside Iran make ideal cover for smugglers who are thought to transport thousands of kilos of opiates a year in the area.
Farther south in Basra, also bordering Iran, the drug trade is flourishing there too, police said.
"The smugglers transfer hashish and opium across at Al-Shalamja at the Iranian border and Safwan near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border," an anti-narcotics agent in Basra said on condition of anonymity.
"Some of them are arrested from time to time, including Iranians and even Syrians," he said, adding that the smugglers used mainly trucks to haul their cargo into the Gulf region.
Meanwhile, Samawa city in Muthanna province has become the main crossing point for smugglers headed to Saudi Arabia, said a local police officer who asked that his name not be used.
"The drugs come from Iran, then they are sold at the Saudi border. Smugglers are young and they use motorcycles or animals to cross the desert late at night."
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan's opium production soared to 8,200 tonnes in 2007 from 6,100 tonnes the year before, accounting for 93 percent of global production.
Iran's police chief Esmaeel Ahmadi Moghadam said last month in Tehran that only about 900 tonnes of the 2,500 tonnes of drugs that entered his country from Afghanistan were seized in 2007.
Iraqi police refused to provide AFP with estimates of how many tonnes of drugs passed through the country last year, but according to the Tehran authorities well over 1,000 tonnes are going overseas, most of it thought to be exiting along Iran's western border.
A growing slice of that trade is believed to be passing through Iraq, according to the International Narcotics Control Board, the independent and quasi-judicial monitoring body associated with the United Nations.
"Illicit drug trafficking and the risk of illicit cultivation of opium poppy have been increasing in some areas with grave security problems," it said, referring to Iraq in a report published last year.
An Iraqi police captain in Amara said that drug trafficking arrests in city, long a home to anti-government militias, had jumped from 26 in 2005 to 46 last year.
Police in the region declined to comment on the quantities of smuggled narcotics, but what is certain is that profit margins and the temptation of making quick cash are huge.
A kilo of heroin sells for 3,000 US dollars in Afghanistan and 3,200 dollars in Iran. By the time it reaches Syria, that kilo can fetch 17,000 dollars and 21,000 dollars in Jordan, according to the UN's 2008 World Drug Report.
In Europe the average cost of a kilo of heroin is upwards of 35,000 dollars.
For one imprisoned Iraqi the temptation had clearly been too great.
"I was arrested with five of my friends by Saudi security four years ago... we were given sentences varying between 20 and 35 years," the youth told AFP by telephone from Saudi Arabia's Rafha prison.
Officials say that the incentive to catch drug smugglers waned sharply after Saddam Hussein was toppled more than five years ago. Beforehand customs officers were offered market rates for uncovering contraband.
A state of general instability in Iraq has only made it easier for drugs traffickers, and a lack of infrastructure has made collecting data especially difficult.
"Drugs follow the paths of least resistance, and parts of Iraq certainly fit that description," an official of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said.
"There is a shortage of reliable information about the drug situation in Iraq," he added.
At Baghdad's Ibn al-Rushed hospital, Dr. Bassem Dawood said the use of illegal drugs had spiked in the Iraqi capital and much of it was opiate-related, although hard facts and figures were still unavailable.
The International Narcotics Control Board echoed Dawood in its report.
"Though official data are lacking, it appears that drug abuse in Iraq has increased dramatically, including among children from relatively affluent families," it said.