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Drugs, militias form explosive mix on Iraq-Iran border

Officers and judges who dare to go up against those controlling the drug trade along Iraq’s southeastern border with Iran continue to be targeted as attempts are made to crack down on corruption.
An Iranian man pours kerosene on a pile of drugs seized by authorities.

BAGHDAD — An anti-narcotics Interior Ministry general was assassinated Sept. 5 in Iraq’s drug-plagued southeastern region of Maysan on the same day as the announcement of the arrest of the region’s National Security Department director for corruption.

Both mark only the latest of a long string of incidents hinting at growing lawlessness along the country’s border with Iran.

The National Security officer killed — Brig. Gen. Qassim Daoud Salman — was shot dead along with his driver outside a restaurant near the border. His attackers fled.

The director who was arrested for corruption had accepted a bribe of several thousand dollars from an informant working with the Integrity Commission. A video of his arrest was widely circulated on social media, seemingly to shore up confidence in the country’s security forces amid widespread tension and eroded faith in their ability to counter mafias and militias.

It was not immediately clear whether there was a link between the arrest and the killing. Sources close to security forces had not responded to a request for further information by the time of publication.

Last year, the directorate tasked with drug control in Maysan province had urged that more detention facilities be built as soon as possible due to a sharp rise in the number of drug-related arrests and the inability to house all those arrested, as Al-Monitor reported at that time.

A hashtag briefly trended at that time literally meaning “starve them” — a call to “starve” armed groups and “[political] parties [linked to militias]” operating in Iraq that are involved in the drug trade and that use the proceeds to buy weapons and support, acting as de facto mafia-type organizations.

The day before the high-profile killing and the release of the videotape this week, Iraq announced that about 300 kilograms of narcotics and millions of tablets had been seized in the country in the first eight months of the year.

This amount is, however, much lower than the amount regularly reported seized across the border in Iran, where drug busts are more frequent and consequences of being caught with drugs tend to be harsher.

It is not unusual for a single drug bust to reportedly rake in over 1,000 kilograms of drugs in Iraq’s eastern neighbor, with which Iraq shares a lengthy porous border through which millions of people transit every year for religious ceremonies alone. On the other side, Iran’s border has been a massive influx of Afghans flowing in after the country fell to the Taliban in August 2021.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Iran accounted for over 91% of opium seizures in 2020 and remains one of the major transit countries for drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Europe and other areas.

India also recently seized a larger quantity than that captured by the Iraqi authorities in the first eight months of the year, some 312.5 kilograms of methamphetamine, in a single drug bust against two Afghan nationals in the country. Concerns have risen after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan about a possible rise in the regional drug trade, which will likely affect Iraq as well. 

Several Iraqi security officers have told Al-Monitor in recent months that the country is awash in drugs but that little is being done about it — or that can even be done so long as non-state armed groups continue to be allowed to operate relatively unhindered throughout the country.

In one month alone earlier this year, at least 1,300 people were reportedly arrested on suspicion of being involved in the drug trade. However, many Iraqis feel that those controlling the trade — and guns — remain relatively untouched and possibly untouchable.

Earlier this year, Iraq’s Interior Ministry stated that cannabis and methamphetamines smuggled from Iran were among the most widely consumed narcotics in Iraq.

Meanwhile, judges and police are killed for trying to stop the trade, many in the same province as the latest high-profile cases.

Earlier this year, an Iraqi judge specialized in drug cases was shot and killed in Maysan province, while another anti-drug judge had narrowly escaped an attempt on his life a few months prior in the same province.

Meanwhile, though the rash of violence that broke out in late August in the central, most heavily secured area of the Iraqi capital for almost 24 hours was subdued after a powerful cleric called on his followers to desist and leave the Green Zone, the confidence of much of the population has been shaken in the security forces’ ability to protect them from non-state armed groups operating in the country.

A seeming lack of urgency and ability to effect needed change by the political class also seems to be wearing on the country’s morale, while the violent outcome of these latest protests — with militias seemingly empowered and dozens dead — may discourage further demonstrations for the moment.

Hundreds of others were injured, many seriously so, after RPGs, missiles and gunfire resounded throughout a night that rekindled fears and traumas from the past decades.

A number of underreported incidents of the burning of militia and official security headquarters in southern Iraq followed the late August outbreak of violence in the capital.

Retaliatory assassinations and destruction of property have been a hallmark of long-simmering hostility between powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's supporters and rival Iran-linked Shiite militias, most prominently Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

A source in contact with multiple medical facilities in the key southern port city of Basra told Al-Monitor that an unusually high number of gunshot and other wounds continued to be seen in the days following an official “end” to the violence.

As the violence and tension continue, attempts to curb the drug trade are likely to take a back seat to bringing in a government acquiesced to by the country’s major powerbrokers, if not the population itself.

Concerns at the same time remain that many of those involved in armed power plays and cross-border movement of weapons may meanwhile be further empowered by the lucrative trade in narcotics.

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