Trafficking and the dirty war in Iraq



Four Gulf Wars have eroded Iraq's stability and turned it into perfect prey for international, regional and local forces to exploit. The reality is that Islamic State (IS) - a formidable organisation which will not disappear for the foreseeable future - was a symptom, not the cause, of Iraq's instability. The root causes of the country's stem from the disastrous policies of Saddam Hussein, decades of catastrophic interference by external international and regional actors, and the destabilisation caused by the Arab Revolutions and war in Iraq's neighbouring country, Syria. IS jihādists and the three year campaign to dislodge them from Iraq's western and northern territories (spearheaded by militias, Kurdish peshmerga, and a disjointed, corrupt Iraqi military) have distracted onlookers from the deep-seated social and economic issues plaguing the country. 

As Iraq slides away from the international spotlight, the underlying currents driving violence, disorder and the politically-charged atmosphere across the nation will emerge. An underlying one, underestimated by international and regional policymakers, is the deepening crisis of drug trafficking and production across the Iraqi state. In Iraq, smuggling is the trade which has dominated the landscape for some time. Since the Iran-Iraq War wrecked the economy, the president's decision to invade Kuwait to seize its oil assets to pay off debts accumulated by a war which an estimated 1.5 million dead have proven fatal. 

Saddam, the West's client, threatened Saudi Arabian interests in the Gulf, regional power and the economic interests of the oil-hungry Western world, in-particular the petrodollar. The United States' supported by its coalition under President George S.W Bush launched one of the heaviest bombardments in modern military history and Saddam's military, one of the most powerful in the Middle East (armed and supplied by the West to contain the 1979 Iranian revolution), was brushed aside. The U.S military stopped short of deposing Saddam, the combination of internal revolt against the regime by the Shiites and Kurds and the implementation of international sanctions would check Iraq's regional influence and power. Saddam survived, however the consequences resulted in a major shift in Iraq's social and economic structures which laid the foundations for increased smuggling, trafficking, illicit economics and the strengthening of the country's war economy.

By 2003 and the American-led invasion of the county designed to remove Saddam from power, the smugglers trade had been honed and the underlying activities and conflicts over Routes 1, 6, 8 and 10 played an important role in dictating who really controlled Iraq during the subsequent period. The deposition of Saddam Hussein - whose ultra-violent security state had scarcely kept order - exacerbated the fight for control over these key routes, black markets and illicit commerce, whether it be sex trafficking, oil smuggling, transporting contraband products (usually cigarettes, pornography and alcohol) and pharmaceuticals across borders.

Saddam's clique used to rule the country, however his fall has invited in new opportunities for rivals to seize political and economic capital while the former dictator's clan splintered into a multiplicity of different factions. In June, 2005, fears were already emerging that the collapse of the Iraqi state was turning the country into a corridor for narco-trafficking. As The Washington Post noted: 'Iraq has become a transit point in the flow of hashish and heroin from Iran and Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of opium poppies, to Persian Gulf countries and Europe.' In Basra, formerly occupied by British soldiers, the city gangs have replaced smuggling oil with methamphetamine. "Krystal is the new oil" Abdullah claimed as he spoke with The Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahmad in August, 2016. 

In Abdul-Ahmad's report, the drug trade in Basra was soaring, while Iraq's narcotics forces remained overwhelmed by the influx of crystal meth into the country. The conflict with IS in northern and western Iraq has left them with a very tight budget in a city where many police have been coerced, corrupted and have been infiltrated by gangs and militias. During the British occupation, for example, the Serious Crimes Unit, initially trained by UK soldiers, were controlled by militias  Quoted by a senior British military official in The Daily Telegraph, the SCU became "one of the major organs which contributed to death squads in Basra. They dressed in police uniform, used police cars, police pistols and would murder for political and criminal gain."

 These SCU police tormented Basra's civilians and, as a de-facto militia, helped target British and Iraqi security forces, and worked with other paramilitary groups including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army to undermine the crumbling influence of the British military. According to Frank Ledwidge, SCU, along with rogue elements of the Mahdi Army targeted Basra's Sunni population reducing its from 15% in 2003 to 4% by 2007 through ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Alongside the SCU, the Special Police Commandos (SPC) assembled by General David Petraeus and Colonel Jim Steele to fight and hunt down Sunni insurgents and Iraqi rebels (Iraq's "Salvador Option") routinely tortured prisoners and murdered with impunity. The police and militias - even branches of government (including the Ministry of Health) were very frequently involved in extra-judicial and sectarian killings during the Iraq War. 

Little has changed since the Iraq War, with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and media outlets reporting various human rights abuses being committed by the Iraqi military and the Popular Mobilisation Units campaigning to dislodge IS and its allies from the cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi, Falljua and Sinjar. The horrifying prisons and detention centres used by Saddam, the British and the the United States are still being used by groups such as the Emergency Response Division (ERD) once lauded by the Americans for their role in the fight against IS. According to Iraqi journalist Ali Akardy, ERD members have been photographing and recording their torture and execution of civilians and POWs alike. These were done not for intelligence gathering, but, as Sarah Whitson Human Rights Watch Middle East Director grimly assessed "for fun." 

"We are special forces,” Captain al-Duri warned Ali Akary, “we conduct field executions. That is what I am telling you for your own sake.” As ABC News analyses U.S. military officials told the news outlet that 'the ERD has been blacklisted from receiving U.S. military aid and arms under a federal law known as the Leahy Act, which requires the U.S. to deny military aid if vetting of a foreign military unit finds "credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights."' However, as Ali Akardy discovered, the Leahy Act was a sham. Videos shot by Akardy show the ERD soldiers were armed with 'U.S.-donated weapons, such as Humvee trucks and “Carl Gustav” anti-tank launchers.' U.S. officials, naturally, refused to comment on this issue, the reality that their government is supporting the dirty war tearing the country to pieces.

In 2016, protestors entered the Green Zone (home to parliament, government buildings and many foreign embassies) in April and May furious at the inability of government to provide security and tackle rampant corruption, protesters on the latter occasion occupying the parliament floor. These protests were spearheaded by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr who as recently as 3rd August published a statement on his website a letter calling for renewed demonstrations: "I wish that the people were aware of what corrupt politicians are planning of a dirty scheme to restore corruption with a new dress that will not only control the people's livelihood but also their lives...and they go out in a demonstration of millions to determine their fate." In February, 2017, the Green Zone was hit by rockets, five were left dead and hundreds injured in riots. The "sectarian storm" which Sadr believes has kept the people distracted illustrates, in some ways, that the conflict with IS has distracted from multiple socio-economic issues at hand. 

The blurring between state police and militia power and Iraq's economic devastation has only been aided by Iraq's corruption and catalysed illicit economies. “Everybody is corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom. Everyone. Including me.” said Mishan al-Jabouri to Martin Chulov. "Believe me, most of the senior names in the country have been responsible for stealing nearly all its wealth. There are organised corruption syndicates running the country, let alone militias. I tell you very frankly, no Iraqi power can take action on this." These words, combined with the fractured Iraqi economy, where electricity and water shortages combined with environmental degradation have enhanced the power and importance of trafficking to many political groups. 

As Abdul-Ahmad's report on Basra shows, disorder has turned places such as the coastal city into space for dirty dealings.  The deep mistrust of the shambolic but brutal state apparatus has benefited the drug epidemic. Students are hungry for crystal meth for enhanced sexual performance (not so different from many Western compatriots who snort, smoke and inject themselves to enhance performance and party till midday in the United Kingdom and beyond). However, more sadly, methamphetamine has found a perfect host. Poverty, corruption, and violence and conflict has been unrelenting in Iraq. It is little surprise that in such a dangerous and lawless environment where human rights are violated with near impunity that the escapism presented by crystal would have an allure to the innumerable lives fractured emotionally, physically, and psychologically by near permanent war and instability from a national level to that of the individual.

Security forces, described by journalist Patrick Cockburn as "a patronage system to provide jobs rather than being a trained military force", has not been immune to this drug epidemic. In 2010, The New York Times reported that use of drugs and alcohol while on duty had become widespread in the Iraqi military and police forces. 

"In interviews with dozens of soldiers, police officers, political leaders, health officials, pharmacists and drug dealers around the country indicate that...in some regions of Iraq, military and police officials say, as many as 50 percent of their colleagues, including high-ranking officers, use drugs or alcohol while on duty."

It is little wonder that this army crumbled so quickly when IS launched its northern offensive and captured Mosul in 2014. However, the question remains. Has Iraq made a transition from drug corridor to drug producer? The debate is fierce. Ali al-Badri, a member of parliament in the Agricultural Committee believes the problem is overstated. “The presence of some individual cases does not mean Iraq is now producing drugs." However, others disagree with Iraqi magistrate Ali Hassan Kamel telling Al Sumaria News

Sabah al-Saadi, a member of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee arguing that the number of drug dealers was increasing each year since the 2003 invasion and the rise of IS  in Iraq increased local production as consumption of drugs increased. “This could encourage smugglers to start manufacturing inside the country.” said al-Saadi. Consumption is very high. Tramadol (painkiller), methamphetamine (crystal meth), and Captagon are flooding and counterfeit drugs industry, estimated to be worth $1 billion a year, has also emerged as cheap, low-quality drugs from India and China have seeped into Iraq's underground economy, which has led to kidnap and murder as people fight for control of this enterprise. This surge in consumption, has left psychiatrists such as Aqeel Al-Sabagh overwhelmed as the required manpower and expertise to help drug abusers cope are non-existent; the majority have fled the country or have been killed.

Iraq has not become a narco-state yet, but it is developing into a severe issue for government and security policymakers. 180 pounds of narcotics were seized in Basra — largely meth or cannabis — between January and August of 2016, a significant increase from 16 pounds seized in the area throughout 2015. Beyond Maysan and Basra, criminals were arrested in Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad for trafficking narcotics and in Erbil, security forces raided a drug farm estimated to be worth $1 million according to Kurdish new outlets. IS are quick to publicise its puritanical views on the use of cigarettes, consumption of alcohol and use of drugs (forbidden under certain Islamic laws) is legendary in its propaganda videos. However this "war on drugs" is a double-act. 

IS was reportedly tapping into opium production in Sharqat and sources claim that heroin was also being extracted in the University of Mosul's laboratories while it was under the terrorist group's control. Its foot soldiers have been consuming Captagon, a combination of amphetamine and theophylline, to induce them into a euphoria before going into combat in Syria and Iraq. In an interview with CNN, a former fighter described how IS “gave (them) drugs, hallucinogenic pills that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die." In January 2013, Captagon had been cited by The Guardian as a key drug fuelling Syria's war as the state - another transit point for narcotics destined for the wealthy Gulf states have been used as stimulants for insurgents and Bashar al-Asad's soldiers courtesy of various sources including the Shiite Hizbollah's military wing and other drug traffickers. 

It would be an oversimplification to tie all IS's atrocities to its hyper-literalist interpretation of Salafi/Wahabbi doctrine with Hiba Khan for The Independent writing that 'Islam has become a convenient label hiding the joining of two bloodied hands: trafficking and terrorism. Global gang violence has been “Islamised”'

Khan has quite a strong case. IS's production, distribution and consumption of narcotics is tied to its diverse trafficking operations, best exemplified by how IS grafted itself onto the sex trafficking industry in Iraq. The issue of sex trafficking in the country did not start with the enslavement of Yazidi women and girls during ISIS's seizure of Mosul in 2014. Heartland Alliance, a U.S organisation tracked 100 cases of human trafficking in Iraq between 2012-2014 while a report the group published in 2010 stated "...since the overthrow of the Iraqi regime in 2003, large numbers of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis have had to flee their homes, resulting in a rise in kidnapping and trafficking."

In 2010, the U.S State Department released its 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report (TiP Report) revealing that innocent men, women and children "...some as young as 11 years old, are subjected to conditions of human trafficking within the country and in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, and possibly Yemen for forced prostitution and sexual exploitation within households. In some cases, women are lured into forced sexual exploitation through false promises of work. The more prevalent means of human trafficking is through sale or forced marriage." ISIS's conduct against the Yezidis where younger women and girls were sold into sexual or domestic slavery or given as gifts to fighters, as detailed by Amnesty International, is not not a new phenomenon in Iraq as the TiP report gives further evidence that:

"...some as young as 11 years old, are subjected to conditions of human trafficking within the country and in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, and possibly Yemen for forced prostitution and sexual exploitation within households. In some cases, women are lured into forced sexual exploitation through false promises of work. The more prevalent means of human trafficking is through sale or forced marriage." 

The costs have been staggering, the stories harrowing. On July 13, 2014, twenty-eight women and five men were found massacred in a make-shift brothel in eastern Baghdad, medical workers siting the killings being conducted by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Other groups of women have been found dead across the city as militias and police compete for pimps and control of trafficking while women were dragged into cars and disappeared after they were seized by different armed groups. “Sex fuels militias, because it is a source of money,” former prostitute turned activist Layla explained to Rania Abozeid, “There are two options facing pimps—either they work with the militias or the militias kill them.”

In northern Iraq, IS enslaved thousands of men, women and children. Many women and young girls were forced into marriages and cases of rape and torture made international headlines as part of a wider campaign of genocidal violence against the Yezidis. Those forced into prostitution across the country, not just IS territory, (kidnap or poverty) and escape are not safe. They can be killed by husbands, male relatives and family members on suspicion of shameful acts. In these honour killings, they can shot, stoned, burnt, strangled, or mutiliated, publicly executed or they disappear and are never seen again.

As the case of the Yezidis demonstrate, women will often commit suicide to escape the pain and social pressures. For some it is the best alternative to the stigmatisation and merciless treatment they may potentially face from their families or wider community. More tragically, their choice to end their lives are simply related to the psychological trauma inflicted by days, months or years of being systematically raped, incarcerated and tortured by their captors as supposed to social pressures. As with state-led social programs to support drug addicts being nearly non-existent, so to are the necessary facilities to provide psychosocial support and counselling. This is an issue which has been outsourced to international and local NGOs who now support those traumatised by conflict and trafficking.  

Gender-based violence has turned Iraq from one of the key countries that advocated women's rights in the Middle East, where under Law Number 180 polygamy, forced marriage and child marriage were outlawed/restricted, into a state with one of the worst record.s Literacy rates were high and the state improved women's rights in divorce and inheritance.  These have been reversed by decades of war and despite protests by activists, a budget to address sex trafficking and the consequences of it were non-existent. Policies were introduced repealing progress made as Saddam, determined to hold onto power after the Second Gulf War, began a campaign of Islamisation and Islamist parties which began to dominate politics in the wake of 2003 American invasion introduced new bills to limit a woman's role in society as Rania explains:

"In October of 2013, Hassan al-Shammari, the Justice Minister and a member of the Islamist Fadhila (Virtue) Party, introduced a bill that contained two hundred and fifty-four articles based on the Jaafari school of Shiite religious jurisprudence. The bill, which would apply to Iraq’s Shiite majority, proposed legalizing marriage for girls as young as nine, entitling a husband to nonconsensual sex with his wife, and preventing a woman from leaving her home without her husband’s permission. Article 126 stated that a husband was not required to financially support his wife if she was either too young or too old to sexually satisfy him." 

The bill was passed in 2014 and with the fight raging against IS, charities, shelters and non-governmental organisations have had to fill the gap to challenge the worst aspects of the sex trade and protect and support women and girls who have had their lives ripped apart. The Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) has been leading the support for victims of sexual abuse and has opened eight across the country to provide psychological support and protection to victims. In 2017, they have opened more, one for Yezidi women and children who escaped slavery by IS, one in Basra, one in Kirkuk and they created safe houses to protect women from revenge attacks in Mosul. Since the anti-trafficking department for the police force opened in 2012, it has investigated sixty-eight cases of trafficking. Only five cases involved sex trafficking or prostitution, a fewer amount of cases than shelters opened across the country by the OWFI. 

The variety of illicit enterprises, including rackets, money laundering, kidnapping, extortion, human smuggling, oil theft and weapons trafficking place IS and many militias operating in Iraq firmly within the category of a transnational criminal organisation, not just a terrorist organisation. However, as it has become clear, the state and its militias, the Kurdish peshmerga and IS are all part of the same problem which is infecting every corner of Iraq and in-turn threatened the structure of the Middle East. 

Arms trafficking has only fuelled this instability. With weapons  disappearing on the black market and the U.S military admitting that it leaked $1 billion worth of armaments and weapons in Iraq and Kuwait, reclaiming lost hardware will be a monumental challenge including preventing the military equipment falling into the hands of blacklisted commandos like ERD or terrorist organisations like IS and Al-Qa'ida. IS's arsenal was designed or manufactured in more than 25 countries who poured armaments into the country while Amnesty International detailed report illustrates how the U.S, Europe, Russia and Iran arms industries have been pouring military support into the coffers of the Popular Mobilisation Units and Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq. The turning of Iraq into a weapons depot and pumping money into its war economy has only worsened Iraq's trafficking problem and has taken the monopoly of violence away from the government. 

This has come by systematically arming, the government and its militias as well as Sunni tribes and Kurdish peshmerga groups and the West's support for regional powers arming rebel groups in Syria opposed to President  al-Asad. Many of these rebels groups, armed by Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and supported by the CIA using Muammar Qaddafi's (deposed by NATO-supported Libyan rebels) military stockpiles were volatile and known to be jihādists with ties to Al-Qa'ida. In 2008, Steve Simons ominous predictions for Iraq have come to fruition. "The continued nurturing of tribalism in Iraq, in a way that sustains tribes in opposition to the central government rather than folding them into it, will bring about an Iraqi state that suffers from the same instability and violence as Yemen and Pakistan...a dysfunctional country prone to bouts of serious internecine violence." 

Iraq may not have evolved into a fully-fledged narco-state, but it is a trafficking state. Resources whether it be narcotics, humans, or weapons bring an abundance of wealth and political power and international and regional actors - state and non-state - have benefited from the collapsed state and Iraq's successive wars. These conflicts in Iraq are wars that the West, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, have covertly supported for decades from the 1963 coup against Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem which opened the way for the Baathists to seize power in Iraq to the military support for Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War and since the dictator made the historic decision to invade Kuwait in 1990. The invasion of Kuwait gave way to U.S-led sanctions which killed hundreds of thousands of people, bombings, invasion, occupation, collective punishment for the population (even those who did not support and collaborate with insurgents opposed to the American occupation) and support for a corrupt state which has carried out atrocious crimes against its own people using a military predominantly trained by the Western states and Iran. 

The ideals of modern Western society are in a losing battle against the iron strength and ruthlessness of the market's logic. As Robert Saviano writes the market "needs lands without laws, lands without rights." Entire swathes of Iraq are without both in depressing abundance. The meth epidemic flooding Iraq and poisoning its people is a microcosm of that terrifying market logic. Iraq's tragedy is when crony capitalism, dirty politics, corruption, neoliberalism and kleptocracy amalgamates with the horrors of ultra-violent sectarian extremism, neo-tribalism, and nationalism amidst revolution. The lines of the Gulf Wars are smudged and blurred as are its victims and the causes of their suffering. 

Iraq is a brutalised country. Its violence, state sponsored violence, the atrocities of IS and the war crimes of various militias coating the Internet in blood does not harken back to a time of "medieval" violence. To understand Iraq's tortured lands and to see the suffering of its men, women and children is to comprehend the modern world, the barbarism of our times.


Matthew C.K Williams