- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

BAGHDAD — Fears that lawless post-war Iraq is becoming a haven for international drug trafficking have escalated after the country’s biggest-ever seizure of heroin.

Officers posing as buyers found more than 40 pounds of the drug hidden in a car on Monday, the latest in a string of increasingly large seizures in the past year.

The Afghan-produced heroin comes in over Iraq’s porous border with Iran, creating what U.N. officials say is an important new drug route to Europe and Britain.

During former dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule, heroin was virtually unknown in Iraq because of his police-state law enforcement, which imposed the death penalty even for possession.

Since Saddam’s ouster, however, the lawless environment has offered conditions for smuggling, promising a lucrative income for terrorists and other criminals.

It has also landed Iraqis with the problem of drug addiction to add to their existing woes of car bombs, kidnappings and a lack of jobs.

Monday’s seizure took place in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, 100 miles south of Baghdad, where the regular pilgrimages of Shi’ites from Iran give smugglers easy cover.

“We arrested three Iraqis with [44 pounds] of heroin and [88 pounds] of hashish. Half of the drugs were hidden inside the car’s body in a professional manner,” Maj. Mehdi Saleh, the head of Karbala’s major-crimes unit, said in an interview.

“This is our biggest seizure, but it’s not the first. We have carried out at least 30 operations like this in the past year,” he said.

The seizure followed warnings from U.N. officials in May that Afghan traffickers were allying with insurgents to turn Iraq into a leading drug-transit area between Asia and Europe.

“Whether it is due to war or disaster, weakening of border controls and security infrastructure make countries into convenient logistic and transit points, not only for international terrorists and militants, but also for drug traffickers,” said Hamid Ghodse, the president of the International Narcotics Control Board.

Iraq’s new government is training its fledgling police force in drug-fighting measures, but says drugs will be given little priority as long as the fight against insurgents is raging.

“It happens because we have a weak security system and the border is not protected by the Iraqi forces. For the past year, I have been asking for sniffer dogs at the borders, but there is no response,” said Ra’ad Mehdi Abdul Saad of the Interior Ministry’s new anti-drug office.

Heroin is increasingly popular among Iraqis driven to blot out the numerous woes of everyday life. Figures compiled by Iraq’s Health Ministry last year estimated that Karbala alone had almost 1,000 addicts. British-controlled Amara, a smaller city of 300,000 near the Iranian border, had 500.

“We don’t have updated figures yet, but we would say that in the past year those figures have probably doubled,” said Sarwan Kamel Ali, the head of the Health Ministry’s new anti-drugs program.

“In the old days, people would take pharmaceutical drugs. Now, they take ones like heroin as well,” he said.

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