Under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was for the most part a drug-free state. But, since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq has become a transit country for drug cartels and is becoming a drug-consuming country. Given the increasingly abysmal economic conditions plaguing the country, Iraqi youth are experiencing a loss of hope for a brighter future, enticing them to escape reality through the use of drugs. Iraq has not only become a target for exporting drugs from some of its neighbors, it is also becoming a springboard for drug smuggling into some Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The government of Iraq, despite meager efforts to curtail the abuse and smuggling of drugs, is too frail to address the new threat to Iraqi society.
The chaotic years that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq allowed for the smuggling of drugs through porous borders but only for transit, not consumption. Any possession of drugs under the Baathist regime had been met with capital punishment, therefore drug abuse in the years immediately after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime was limited because of the legal ramifications and because drug use remained socially unacceptable. By 2005, however, Iraq was being used as a steppingstone for drug trafficking. An independent United Nations body, the International Narcotics Control Board, expressed concerns that Iraq, because of its postconflict situation, was becoming a transit country of narcotics coming from Afghanistan.
As social conditions in Iraq have deteriorated, drug addiction among Iraqis has increased. The high unemployment rate, especially among youth, has pushed many Iraqis to start using crystal meth, which the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime called the “main drug of concern” in Iraq. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem dealing a heavy blow to the fragile Iraqi economy and reducing job opportunities. Some in Iraq have directly linked the high unemployment rate among youth to increased addiction. For instance, the Basra police department said that 97% of drug users arrested in 2018 were unemployed, and two-thirds were 25 or younger; the Basra appellate court reported that 90% of those arrested for drug use around the same time were unemployed. Unfortunately, there are no reliable official numbers, but statements by officials indicate that the drug problem is very acute in some cities; for example, the governor of Diwaniyah stated that the rate of drug abuse by youth had reached 40%, according to some estimates by nongovernmental organizations.
The Iraqi government seems unable to address the growing drug problem in the country because of corruption and the weakness of the security system. Attempts at curbing the smuggling and distribution of drugs have been limited at best. The security forces in Maysan province, for example, conduct daily raids, but they have been hampered by tribes that have threatened the families of the officers who try to address the drug issue. Further, the Ministry of Interior only pursues junior drug traffickers and does not have any oversight on major ones. The smugglers also pay hefty bribes to security forces and armed groups that control the border that turn a blind eye to the drug flow. In addition, several unofficial crossings are being used for smuggling that are run by tribes or militias in the south along the border with Iran and in the west on the border with Syria. Many Iraqi judges handling drug-related cases have received death threats, without a proper response from the government. Since 2003, 74 judges have been killed in Iraq, most of whom were handling drug- or corruption-related cases. This has sparked fears for judges taking on such cases. And, even after some drug dealers are caught, politicians intercede. The son of Najaf’s governor and two of his friends were caught on the way to Baghdad with 6 kilograms of hashish and 7,000 pills. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was pardoned by the Iraqi president after the prime minister intervened. The pardon was rescinded only after a public outcry.
Most drugs smuggled into Iraq were initially from Iran, but other countries have begun exporting drugs into Iraq and moving them to neighboring countries. According to the Basra police chief in 2019, 80% of the drugs that flowed into the city came from Iran. In addition, many drug gangs use religious seasons that entail visits to holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala to smuggle different types of drugs. But in recent years, Syria has been a source of drug smuggling into Iraq as well. The rising level of amphetamine production in Lebanon and Syria has had a spillover effect on Iraq’s Anbar province. Drug traffickers have been able to smuggle millions of pills of the highly addictive amphetamine Captagon into Anbar, and from there to other provinces. This smuggling route has not “only become a major regional conduit for drug trafficking but also a lucrative market” because Captagon is a relatively cheap drug.
Yet, while some of Iraq’s neighbors are the source of smuggled drugs, others are the destination of smuggling from Iraq. Kuwait is one of the main countries affected by the drug trade from Iraq. For instance, in 2017, Kuwaiti customs seized drugs that were wrapped around pigeons coming from Iraq and seized nearly 600 bags of Captagon smuggled from its neighbor. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia there have been cases in which Captagon has been smuggled from Iraq via a historic drug trafficking route that starts in Afghanistan and goes through Iran and Iraq, ending in Saudi Arabia. Several hundred Iraqis have been arrested and convicted for drug offenses in Saudi Arabia. Finally, the U.N. has noted an “increase in heroin arriving in Turkey from Iraq” rather than just from Iran.
Current trends indicate that the drug quandary will only worsen. There is no end in sight for curbing corruption, the unemployment rate will remain high if not increase, and law enforcement is too weak to tackle the drug smuggling and dealing. Iraq being a hub for drugs will not only continuously affect Iraqi society but also Iraq’s neighbors. As dire economic conditions and lack of rule of law persist in the country, criminals will exploit these weaknesses to reach lucrative markets in the GCC states and beyond.