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Heroin trade thrives on back of chaos and terror in Iraq September 4, 2005 - telegraph.co.uk
Fears that lawless post-war Iraq is becoming a haven for international drug trafficking have escalated after the country's biggest ever seizure of heroin.
Officers posing as would-be buyers found 20kg of the drug hidden in a car on Monday, the latest in a string of increasingly large seizures in the past year.
The Afghan-produced heroin comes in via Iraq's porous border with Iran, creating what United Nations officials say is an important new drug route to Europe and Britain.
During Saddam Hussein's rule, heroin was virtually unknown in Iraq because of his police-state law enforcement, which imposed the death penalty even for possession.
Since his fall, however, the lawless environment has offered the perfect conditions for smuggling, promising a lucrative income for terrorists and other criminals.
It has also landed Iraqis with the problem of drug addiction to add to their existing woes of car bombs, kidnappings and a lack of jobs.
Monday's seizure took place in the Shia holy city of Kerbala, 100 miles south of Baghdad, where the regular pilgrimages of Shias from Iran give smugglers easy cover.
Major Mehdi Saleh, the head of Kerbala's major crimes unit, told The Sunday Telegraph: "We arrested three Iraqis with 20kg of heroin and 40kg of hashish. Half of the drugs were hidden inside the car's body in a professional manner.
"This is our biggest seizure but it's not the first. We have carried out at least 30 operations like this in the past year."
The seizure followed warnings from UN officials in May that Afghan traffickers were allying with insurgents to turn Iraq into a leading drugs transit area between Asia and Europe.
"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," said Hamid Ghodse, the president of the International Narcotics Control Board.
Iraq's new government is training its fledgling police force in drug-fighting measures, but says drugs will be given little priority as long as the fight against insurgents is raging.
Ra'ad Mehdi Abdul Saad, of the interior ministry's new drugs office, said: "It happens because we have a weak security system and the border is not protected by the Iraqi forces. For the past year I have been asking for sniffer dogs at the borders but there is no response."
Heroin is increasingly popular among Iraqis driven to blot out the numerous woes of everyday life. Figures compiled by Iraq's health ministry last year estimated that Kerbala alone had almost 1,000 addicts. British-controlled Amara, a smaller city of 300,000 near the Iranian border, had 500.
"We don't have updated figures yet, but we would say that in the past year those figures have probably doubled," said Sarwan Kamel Ali, the head of the health ministry's new anti-drugs programme.
"In the old days people would take pharmaceutical drugs. Now they take ones like heroin as well."
Addiction is worst among Iraq's Shia communities, who tend to be poor and whose religious faith strictly forbids other stimulants such as alcohol. Among those receiving treatment for addiction at a Baghdad clinic is Saba Alamy, 17, a student from the Shia slum of Sadr City.
"My friends and I were introduced to drugs by a man we met in Sadr City from Amarah," he said. "At first I didn't want that, but he told me: 'If you have this drug you will forget all your suffering.' Now my family have a new problem and new suffering, because of me."
Iraqis are not short of conspiracy theories about the problem. Many suspect heroin is deliberately being sent across the border by Iran, which itself has about two million heroin addicts. Relations between the two historical enemies are already tense because of claims that Iran has been funding insurgents.