Post-Islamic State Iraqi Kurdistan Faces Surging Drug Abuse Problem

Superbug infections rising among injection drug users
Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

The abuse of illicit narcotics in Iraqi Kurdistan is “rising year by year,” an official from the region’s security apparatus reportedly declared this week after the local government published figures on substantial seizures of heroin and the arrest of hundreds of drug offenders in recent months.

Marking the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on Wednesday, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) drug-combatting general directorate publicized data on its counternarcotics efforts including the number of arrests and amount of seized drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana.

KRG authorities reportedly arrested 651 drug offenders in the first six months of this year. In all of last year, law enforcement detained 948 people for drug offenses. That means the drug-linked arrests this year are on pace to surpass those in 2018. 

“An estimated 10,000 people suffer addiction across the Kurdistan Region,” Rudaw points out. Iraq’s High Commission of Human Rights has reportedly revealed that the average age of drug users is under 20. 

“Unfortunately … the number of users is on the rise year by year,” Sarmand Barzanji, an official from the KRG’s drug prevention directorate, told Rudaw, adding, “Unemployment is one of the reasons behind the growing use of drugs.”

Authorities also seized “87.2 kilos of heroin, 2.8 kilos of crystal [methamphetamine], 2 kilos of marijuana-related products, and 7,579 sheets of narcotic tablets” during the first half of this year, Rudaw reports. 

The revelations about the escalating drug abuse problem in Iraq come a few months after the complete defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) territorial caliphate that spawned across Iraq and Syria. 

Iraq’s neighbor Iran is one of the top transit countries for opium and its heroin derivative originating in Afghanistan, the world’s top producer of the two deadly drugs despite billions in U.S. taxpayer funds devoted to counternarcotics efforts.

Kurdistan 24 reports: 

The sale and consumption of any narcotics is strictly forbidden in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. … Most of [the drugs are] smuggled into the country through its porous border with Iran, on its way to Turkey, Syria, and ultimately Europe and North America. Local activists and authorities have also warned of the rise in drug consumption and trafficking within the country [Iraq] itself.

Echoing Kurdistan 24, Ibrahim Ramazan, the chief of the activist group Culture and Awareness Against Illicit Drugs, attributed much the rise in drug abuse in Iraq to its strategic location next to Iran. 

Rudaw notes: 

Describing the Kurdistan Region as a “transit” where drugs coming from Iran and Turkey pass through to reach Gulf and European countries, he said that “year after year, more people use it and the data show us drug trafficking in Kurdistan is on the rise.”

Lacking in rehabilitation centers to treat addiction, the [Kurdistan] Region is reliant on grassroots organizations for drug recovery programs.

In February, the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported that the Baghdad-sanctioned umbrella organization for predominantly Iran-allied Shiite militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), is undermining security and stability across Iraq by engaging in drug smuggling activities. 

“Iran also conducts other illicit activity in Iraq that undermines security and stability. In Basrah, the police chief accused Iran of being the source of 80 percent of all drugs in the province,” the OIG reported early this year. 

Citing the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) last month, the OIG noted that “PMF units continue to engage in criminal actions like extortion and smuggling.” 

In May, the Pentagon’s OIG acknowledged:

In an effort to increase security and deter cross-border smuggling, the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] began redeploying PMF units, many of which are less disciplined than the regular army and maintain links to Iran, away from the border and replacing them with Army units. 

Baghdad has legalized the PMF as a component of the ISF. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in northern Iraq. The PMF is known to operate in areas disputed by the KRG and Baghdad.

Iran’s narco-terrorist proxy Hezbollah has also been linked to drug trafficking. 

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