Iran-Linked Drug Crisis Worsens in Basra, Iraq
Iraq’s southern city of Basra is grappling with the spillover of a drug crisis from Iran at a time police resources are depleted and detention centers are overcrowded. Poor services were protested badly by locals over the last few months.
On a recent day in one police station, Reuters reporters saw about 150 men, their heads shaved, squatting in two small, cramped holding cells.
Arrests of drug users and dealers have shot up in the past year, further stretching prison services and police in a sign that the problems with municipal resources that prompted protests in Basra last summer have not gone away.
“Drugs spread because the youth are lost, they have no money, they are sick of life. It’s escapism,” Major Shaker Aziz, a senior member of Basra police narcotics unit said.
The situation in prisons, worsened by a lack of treatment centers for recovering addicts, highlights the contrast between the wealth Basra province produces - its oil contributes over 90 percent of state revenues - and its poor living conditions.
Once known as the Venice of the East, Basra city, which has a population of 4 million, lacks clean water and does not have enough electricity to power air conditioners in the scorching summer heat. Unemployment is widespread, especially among youth.
Thousands protested against the conditions, unemployment and corruption last summer, when searing heat made matters worse and hundreds were treated in hospital after drinking unclean water. Protesters set ablaze government buildings and political groups’ headquarters, and clashed with police.
Officials fear a repeat of the violence this year, and while the drug problem is a concern in several areas of Iraq, Basra suffers from it the most.
Basra is struggling even though Iraq declared victory in the four-year war against ISIS in 2017, and the city never fell to the terror group.
The number of drug arrests has risen year-on-year since 2015, Aziz said. By March, police had picked up 15 kilograms (33 lb) of illegal drugs this year, half of 2018’s entire haul. Some 50 to 60 people are arrested each week on drugs-related offenses, compared to more than 1,000 all last year, he said.
All the drugs come from abroad, said Colonel Ismail al-Maliki, who heads the Basra police narcotics unit.
Basra Police Chief Rashid Fleih said in November that 80 percent of drugs entering the city come from Iran.
Iraq once had the death penalty for users and dealers but passed new legislation in 2017 under which judges can order rehabilitation for users or sentence them to jail for up to three years. In the absence of rehab centers, they are jailed. Under the new law, the health ministry was given two years to provide rehab centers.
Local health officials pledged to reopen and upgrade a 44-bed rehabilitation center this month but the police say 44 beds is not enough.
“All of Basra’s oil and we can’t afford rehab?” said Aziz.
Asked about the situation, the state-owned Basra Oil Company said it has pledged $5 million for a rehab center.