Opium: Iraq's deadly new export

Amid the anarchy, farmers begin to grow opium poppies, raising fears that the country could become a major heroin supplier

Farmers in southern Iraq have started to grow opium poppies in their fields for the first time, sparking fears that Iraq might become a serious drugs producer along the lines of Afghanistan.

Rice farmers along the Euphrates, to the west of the city of Diwaniya, south of Baghdad, have stopped cultivating rice, for which the area is famous, and are instead planting poppies, Iraqi sources familiar with the area have told The Independent.

The shift to opium cultivation is still in its early stages but there is little the Iraqi government can do about it because rival Shia militias and their surrogates in the security forces control Diwaniya and its neighbourhood. There have been bloody clashes between militiamen, police, Iraqi army and US forces in the city over the past two months.

The shift to opium production is taking place in the well-irrigated land west and south of Diwaniya around the towns of Ash Shamiyah, al Ghammas and Ash Shinafiyah. The farmers are said to be having problems in growing the poppies because of the intense heat and high humidity. It is too dangerous for foreign journalists to visit Diwaniya but the start of opium poppy cultivation is attested by two students from there and a source in Basra familiar with the Iraqi drugs trade.

Drug smugglers have for long used Iraq as a transit point for heroin, produced from opium in laboratories in Afghanistan, being sent through Iran to rich markets in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Saddam Hussein's security apparatus in Basra was reportedly heavily involved in the illicit trade. Opium poppies have hitherto not been grown in Iraq and the fact that they are being planted is a measure of the violence in southern Iraq. It is unlikely that the farmers' decision was spontaneous and the gangs financing them are said to be "well-equipped with good vehicles and weapons and are well-organised".

There is no inherent reason why the opium poppy should not be grown in the hot and well-watered land in southern Iraq. It was cultivated in the area as early as 3,400BC and was known to the ancient Sumerians as Hul Gil, the "joy plant". Some of the earliest written references to the opium poppy come from clay tablets found in the ruins of the city of Nippur, just to the east of Diwaniya.

There has been an upsurge in violence not only in Diwaniya but in Basra, Nassariyah, Kut and other Shia cities of southern Iraq over the past 10 days. It receives limited attention outside Iraq because it has nothing to do with the fighting between the Sunni insurgents and US forces further north or the civil war between Shia and Sunni in Baghdad and central Iraq. The violence is also taking place in provinces that are too dangerous for journalists to visit. Aside from Basra, few foreign soldiers are killed.

The fighting is between rival Shia parties and militias, notably the Mehdi Army, who support the anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Organisation - the military wing of the recently renamed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). In many, though not all, areas of southern Iraq, the latter group controls the police.

The intra-militia violence in southern Iraq is essentially over control of profitable resources and the establishment of power bases. According to one report the violence in Diwaniya has been escalating for two months and was initially motivated by rivalry over control of opium production but soon widened into a general turf war.

The immediate cause of the fighting in Diwaniya that began on 16 May was the arrest of several members of the Mehdi Army. Other militiamen tried to rescue them and attacked the police (whom the Sadrists say are controlled by the SIIC). Troops from the Iraqi army and the US army were drawn into the fighting. The Sadrists sent 200 men as reinforcements into the city. Some 11 people, eight of them civilians, were killed on a single day. An American soldier was killed and two wounded in a Mehdi Army attack on Saturday. Diwaniya's Governor, Khaleel Jaleel Hamza, who has moved his family to Iran for safety, announced "a pact of honour" to end the fighting on Monday. The agreement provides for foreign forces to be kept out of the city.

As in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, these conditions of primal anarchy are ideal for criminal gangs and drug smugglers and producers. The difference is that Afghanistan had long been a major producer of opium and possessed numerous laboratories experienced in turning opium into heroin. The Taliban, on the orders of its leader, Mullah Omar, had stopped its cultivation by farmers in the parts of Afghanistan it controlled. Farmers near the southern city of Kandahar grubbed up cauliflowers and planted poppies instead as soon as the US started bombing.

The grip of the British Army around Basra and other southern provinces was always tenuous and is now coming to an end. Although the government in Baghdad speaks of gradually taking control of security in the provinces from US and Britain, the winners in the new Iraq are the militia, often criminalised, that have colonised the Iraqi security forces. Diwaniya is in Qaddasiyah province, which was never under British control but the pattern in all parts of Shia Iraq is very similar.

The one factor currently militating against criminal gangs organising poppy cultivation in Iraq on a wide scale is that they are already making large profits from smuggling drugs from Iran. This is easy to do because of Iraq's enormous and largely unguarded land borders with neighbouring states. Iraqis themselves are not significant consumers of heroin or other drugs.

But it is evident from the start of opium production around Diwaniya that some gangs think there is money to be made by following the example of Afghanistan. Given that they can guarantee much higher profits from growing opium poppies than can be made from rice, many impoverished Iraqi farmers are likely to cultivate the new crop.

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