Monday, October 11, 2004

Coalition troops have seized $30 million worth of heroin intended for sale on Iraqi streets by rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the former commander of the 9,000-strong Polish force in south-central Iraq says.

Lt. Gen. Mieczyslav Bieniek said the militia was using the drug profits “to pay for action” against coalition forces and that some members of the Mahdi’s Army were “under the influence [while] fighting us.”

The Polish commander was in Washington last week and said that the heroin trade was so pervasive that militia members were known as the “pink army” — named after the red plastic bags they use to peddle the drugs.

Military reports from southern Iraq, as well as State Department and Iraqi sources, have said militants also were using and selling amphetamines in Najaf and Baghdad.

Their customers are mainly Iraqi civilians, but officials do not rule out that some of the drugs have reached coalition troops. Marijuana and hashish also are readily available across Iraq.

A U.S. defense official says he is not aware of drug use by U.S. forces in Iraq. “The bitter realism is that there are 130,000 young people over there, and there have been incidents of indiscipline. I haven’t heard of any involving drugs, but you can’t rule out that possibility.”

Gen. Bieniek, whose area of responsibility spanned south-central Iraq from Saudi Arabia on the west to Iran on the east, said most of the heroin was coming across the porous borders from both neighbors.

A route through Iran has become a major route for transporting Afghan heroin to Europe. Afghanistan produces about three-quarters of the world’s supply.

“We’ve got some Afghan mujahideen coming in,” Gen. Bieniek said. Forces under his command seized at least 60 vehicles illegally crossing from Iran into Iraq.

Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, the border with Iran was protected by six battalions of armed and trained police. Today, two battalions are guarding the boundary, Gen. Bieniek said.

In a slide presentation at the American Enterprise Institute, the commander showed a photograph of the confiscated heroin carefully laid out in bags. The drug cache has been burned.

Gen. Bieniek commanded the Polish-led multinational troop contingent from January through July of this year. Despite a mandate to establish security and stability, his forces never managed to do that.

“We are still in the combat zone,” he said, facing daily threats and attacks from multiple fronts, including foreign fighters, al Qaeda-linked terrorists, militant Muslims, criminals and former Ba’athists.

“Every day and every night, we faced such kinds of threats,” he said, illustrating the peril with photographs of soda-can bombs, suicide-bomb vests, roadside explosive devices, confiscated weapons and ammunition.

Controlling the 30,000-square-mile territory that included the troubled cities of Najaf, Kut, Kufa, Karbala and Hilla with a hodgepodge of international troops — each with their own rules-of-engagement language — was a “very complicated operation.”

Gen. Bieniek, who studied in California and at Sandhurst, the British military academy, previously served in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Western Sahara and the Golan Heights. He said he was restrained in Iraq by the limits on his mandate and by other nations’ forces under his command. His forces could participate in offensive operations with U.S. troops, but he was not authorized to use his own forces to begin offensive combat operations.

Fighting an enemy that used civilians as cover also proved difficult, he said. “They did not respect any rule of law. They would attack from behind a crowd. It was brutal, unconventional war … but we did everything we can to avoid civilian losses.”

Iraqis “would sometimes want to use us as a shield, or be angry at us. [The question always was] to shoot them or allow them to kill my soldiers. You must have a choice. There is no choice in that situation.”

With Iraqi elections just three months away, Gen. Bieniek said, the development of an effective Iraqi army and police force was crucial. “We must accelerate that process,” he said.

To date, the Iraqi national security forces “in terms of numbers are OK, but in terms of quality, there is still a long way to go.”

In Washington, Gen. Bieniek met with Pentagon officials, including Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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