Pubdate: Sun, 15 Sep 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Alissa J. Rubin


BASRA, Iraq - Hussein Karim sold his three cars, he sold the land
where he planned to build a house, and he spent his savings - several
thousand dollars - all on his crystal meth habit.

He is one of thousands of meth addicts in Iraq, a country where drug
problems have been rare. But growing addiction here is the most recent
manifestation of how the social order has frayed in the years
following the American invasion in 2003.

Mr. Karim, 32, now lives in a windowless room with his wife, his three
children and his disabled brother.

"If crystal is in front of you, you have to take it," he said as he
held his 2-year-old daughter on his lap and his 6-year-old leaned
against him.

He says he has been clean for more than two years and avoids anyone
who might bring him in contact with the drug. He does not even answer
his door but lets his brother do that. He does not want to run into
anyone from his old life because he fears he could be pulled back.

Last year in Basra province, Iraq's southernmost governorate and the
one with the worst drug problems, 1,400 people, almost all men, were
convicted of possession or sale of illegal drugs, mostly crystal meth.
More than 6,800 are in prison nationwide and that is excluding the
Kurdish region, which accounts for about a fifth of Iraq's population,
according to Iraq's Supreme Judiciary Council.

Still, that number is relatively small for a country of about 39
million. But because drug addiction has mainly struck two cities -
Basra and the capital, Baghdad - it is highly visible.

And because it is a largely new problem in Iraq, neither community
leaders nor government officials seem ready to deal with it other than
by putting people in prison.

Until about seven years ago, according to the United Nations Office on
Drugs and Crime, Iraq was essentially a transit country, meaning most
drugs passed through on their way to somewhere else.

Now it is possible to buy an array of addictive stimulants in Iraq as
well as hashish. Illegal drugs are beginning to be farmed and possibly
manufactured in labs, according to the police, United Nations experts
and working-class urban families who see the scourge affecting relatives.

Drugs contribute to poverty as families lose their male wage earners
to addiction and prison.

"The government authorities are very shy in addressing this
situation," said Abbas Maher al-Saidi, the mayor of Zubair, a city of
750,000 just north of Basra. Drug use is high among the city's youths,
many of them unemployed.

"They do not admit this problem because of the social traditions. Even
the media is not discussing it," the mayor said.

Among devout Muslims, illegal drug use is considered a shame, tainting
not just a family, but the society.

The government's approach is to try to expunge any outward sign of the
problem. Almost every night, dozens of SWAT teams fan out across Basra
province, targeting users and dealers and hauling in suspects.

Almost all those arrested are ultimately convicted, creating a new
problem: The prisons have run out of space and the overflow - hundreds
of men - is crammed in holding rooms in the province's police stations
and those of neighboring provinces, where the smell of sweat,
excrement and urine is overpowering.

The rise of drug use in Basra marks only the latest phase of the
region's long slide into criminality that began in earnest after the
United States toppled Saddam Hussein. In the absence of Saddam's tight
police grip, religious and tribal groups vied for control of the
oil-rich province.

With authority fragmented, there was little effective crime fighting
and some militias even participated in criminal networks.

Today, there are regular and specialized police forces, but they seem
unable to get ahead of the drug traffickers.

Unemployment has dropped over all in the post-Saddam era, but it has
remained at close to 20 percent among youths, according to the World
Bank and other sources. It is even higher in some parts of Basra,
contributing to criminal activity, including drug use.

The use of stimulants emerged and spread about seven years ago. At
that time, gangs moved into the drug trade as large quantities of
crystal meth became available from neighboring Iran, where numerous
labs had sprung up, said Angela Me, the head of research for the
United Nations drug agency.

Since then, Iran has tried to clamp down on the labs, but some
production has moved to neighboring countries, she said. Judge Riyadh
Abid al-Abass of the Basra Criminal Court said drugs also come from
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"Criminal gangs could get the drugs in through the long borders and
the Shatt al Arab," said Adil Abdul Razzak, chief judge of the Basra
appellate court.

The Shatt al Arab is a picturesque archipelago of sand banks and small
islands, where Iraq's freshwater Tigris River turns into an estuary as
it flows past Basra and into the Persian Gulf. Small watercraft laden
with contraband can easily navigate the waterway from Iran to Iraq.

Under Mr. Razzak's supervision, the Basra appellate court has begun to
keep records of how the drug arrests correlate with unemployment: He
suspects that people without jobs feel they have little to lose when
they break the law, and the court has found that at least 90 percent
of those arrested are unemployed.

Drug arrests in Basra are on track to top 1,500 in 2019, up from about
1,300 in 2017.

Although efforts to reduce the illegal drugs coming through Iraq's
official border crossings with Iran mostly have succeeded, traffickers
have turned to alternate routes and toughened their defenses against
law enforcement, said the police and judges.

They now use drones and set up cameras on roads outside their
compounds, which have heavy gates and walls that require time for the
police to penetrate, said Mr. al-Saidi, the Zubair mayor. The
fortified compounds and cameras were easily visible when Times
journalists traveled with a Basra SWAT team.

While it is impossible to prove that any of Iraq's militias, known as
the Popular Mobilization Units, are involved in the drug trade, many
of those in prison for drug use say they believe some units work with
the traffickers and have an in with the government.

The units came into existence to fight off the invasion of the Islamic
State in 2014. They include some 30 predominantly Shiite groups, with
many of the most powerful ones tied to Shiite Iran. Basra, like all of
southern Iraq, is overwhelmingly populated by Iraq's Shiite majority.

The fact that big traffickers are either never caught or escape from
prison soon after capture adds to suspicions about the militias' role.

While crystal meth is the most dangerous amphetamine used in Iraq,
perhaps the most popular is illicitly manufactured under the name
Captagon. This drug appears to be heavily used by fighters throughout
the Middle East - much as the allied troops used amphetamines in World
War II to keep fighter pilots awake during long forays.

"Captagon is known sometimes as the drug of freedom fighters," said
Reiner Pungs, an expert at the United Nations drug agency on precursor
chemicals for manufacturing illegal substances.

"You take Captagon and allegedly, you feel you have more energy," he
added. "People say they stay awake and are not hungry so they can keep
fighting under difficult conditions."

Mr. Pungs said it was possible that Iraq was now producing crystal
meth since, according to an International Narcotics Control Board
report in 2018, it imported many tons of pseudoephedrine. The nasal
decongestant, found in some allergy and cold medicines, can also be
used to make crystal meth.

In the absence of a drug policy, Iraq has developed a serious prison
overcrowding problem. Many inmates complain of overcrowding and ill
treatment, but say that what they want most is rehabilitation and help
finding jobs when they get out.

The police holding cells seen by The New York Times had some 70 men
stuffed into a space more suited to 10. The men were crammed together,
sitting on the floor and taking turns sleeping as a television blared
Turkish and American melodramas and action movies dubbed in Arabic.

There was no place to walk, much less exercise. Some stayed in these
conditions for the duration of their term, typically 15 months for
first-time offenders. All of them are barefoot to deter escape.

"There's isn't any medication here or any treatment," said Hamid Jabar
Abdul Karim, 32, who used to work as a canine trainer for the Iraqi
security forces. Now that he has a drug offense on his record, he
said, he was unlikely to be rehired.

There are a couple of rehabilitation centers, but they are so small
they make little impact.

A drug conviction in Iraq makes it difficult to ever get a salaried
job because traditional Iraqi culture views drug use as a
"dishonorable crime," which makes employers shy away, said addicts and
government officials.

For Mr. Karim, the father of three who was an addict for eight years
before going to jail, employment possibilities look bleak. He worked
as a heavy equipment operator in construction, then as fighter for the
Popular Mobilization Units. He sometimes bought crystal meth when he
was training in Iran. Now no one will give him a salaried job, he said.

Compounding his problems is that he is illiterate because, as a
farmer's son, he was expected to stay home to work the land. His
children are also unschooled.

As dusk fell, his middle daughter, 6-year old Rassoul, hung on her
father's arm.

"Can we have an ice cream?" she asked.

Mr. Karim reached in his pocket, but apparently there was nothing in

He kissed his daughter's forehead: "Not today, habibti."