Meth, Money, Militias: Welcome to Iraq’s Hottest Narco Town

A vicious cocktail of addiction, extremism, state failure and unbearably hot summers has turned Basra into a powder keg.

BASRA, Iraq – In a tennis court-size hall, dozens of young men sway to the rhythms of a Shia eulogy singer. Red and blue lighting bathes their shirtless torsos and murals of Imam Hussain in purple, and ceiling fans don’t do enough to combat the 45-degree Celsius (113 F) heat of the night.

This communal Shia mourning ritual was banned under Saddam Hussein. But these rave-like self-flagellation sessions, during which Shia Muslims hit their backs, chests, and heads in a trance-like state for several hours, are now a nightly occurrence in Basra. The practice memorialises the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hussain, whose death galvanised the emergence of Shia Islam.

Those attending this Hussainiya are sober, but not all of Basra is this pious. For Ibrahim, the ritual is a way to escape the crushing reality of life in this sweltering, dangerous city – and to stay away from crystal meth, the other thing that used to help.

Basra suffers from extreme heat. PHOTO: HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images

Ibrahim was working on a construction site when his ordeal with meth began, a five-year journey during which he experienced for himself how the drug trade had swept through his hometown. VICE World News is not giving Ibrahim’s full name for fear of reprisals. 

“There was a guy who took a puff from a pipe and worked all day without complaining about the heat,” he told VICE World News, sitting cross-legged on his living room floor in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods of the port city.  

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Temperatures here in summer are unbearable, often going higher than 50 C (120 F), making Basra one of the hottest cities on the planet. Days on building sites under the remorseless sun are exhausting. “So, with two of my friends, I bought a bag, and we tried it ourselves,” he said. 

Ten years ago, crystal meth wasn’t a big deal in Iraq. It used to be transported through Basra, as part of an illegal trade route from Iran, where it is manufactured for sale in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Persian Gulf. 

But over the last few years, the highly addictive stimulant has found a new home in the overheated, troubled city, which is rife with Iranian-backed armed militias, weak government, endemic corruption, and an unemployment rate that’s at 21 percent and rising. Meth and other drugs are a new challenge for the Iraqi authorities, who have little experience dealing with narcotics. A new conflict is opening up between the Iraqi state and drug traffickers who have links to a large network of Iran-backed militias, who in turn are backed by powerful tribes busy fighting over territory and smuggling routes on the border areas with Iran.

“We need a whole ministry to deal with drugs. A department in the police force is not enough,” said Abdul Amir Shannta, whose nephew, a police major, was killed in a shootout with a notorious alleged local meth kingpin. 

“There is huge money in it, and everyone has a hand in it.”

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Basra province, which takes its name from its capital city, is home to over 70 per cent of Iraq’s oil wealth and is the country’s only gateway to international waters. Basra city, founded in the seventh century, was a literary centre during the Islamic Golden Age – in The Arabian Nights, Basra is the town that Sinbad leaves to go on his epic journey.  

But its recent past is marred by the Iran-Iraq war and rebellions against former dictator Saddam Hussein. It became a stronghold for Shia militants after the US-led 2003 invasion, as armed groups and tribal factions struggled for control of land and smuggling routes, and it was the scene of one of the war’s bloodiest clashes as the militias fought invading British forces.

Iran-backed armed militias still maintain a heavy presence and influence in the city of nearly 2 million, and for the last 10 years they have turned the Shalamcheh border crossing with Iran into a narco trafficking hub. People lower their voices anytime the groups’ names are mentioned, euphemistically referring to them as “political parties” or the “resistance.”

The locals take pride in their town’s past greatness and rail against the chronic corruption and religious zealotry that now choke daily life. 

This stifling atmosphere has pushed some people into a cycle of drug addiction. Crystal meth is mostly used by young people trapped in poverty, and the surge in its use is pushing an already troubled city to its limits. 

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This is causing trouble for people from all walks of life, even for Abbas, the owner of an electronics store. Users make pipes by unscrewing the head of a lightbulb and taping a straw to it. “Just the other day, a guy came in begging for a pack of lightbulbs and got upset when I told him no,” Abbas told VICE World News, giving only his first name. 

“Sometimes, the crystal meth users break the backlights of cars or motorbikes to take out the bulb so they can make a pipe out of it,” he said.

Basrawis used to only associate drugs with Uday, Saddam’s eldest son, who led a notoriously wild and dark party lifestyle for over 30 years while his father ruled. The city avoided most of the ISIS violence that has plagued other parts of Iraq since 2014, and the relative peace means this scorching-hot city is now Iraq’s main economic centre. But it’s still not easy for people to get good work. Now Iraq’s interior ministry says hundreds of kilos of meth, and millions of opioid pills, are seized by Basra’s police each month.  

Uday Hussein in 2000. PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images

For the Baghdad-based government and Iraq’s armed forces, fatigued by sectarian civil war and the fight against jihadist groups including but not limited to ISIS, imposing order on lawless Basra is a challenge.

The city is ruled by coalitions of conservative Shia parties with links to armed groups, which in recent years have cracked down on bars, clubs and other un-Islamic activities, setting up night-time checkpoints to keep residents on their toes.

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The explosion in both locally-cooked meth and product smuggled from Iran through Basra’s vast ports means the Iraqi authorities have ventured into policing narcotics, an area previously unknown to lawmakers and security forces. 

Despite repeated claims by Iraqi officials that they have arrested over 20,000 people for using and dealing drugs in the past two years and seized hundreds of kilos of meth and millions of pills, there is no reliable estimate of the actual quantity of drugs flowing through the market. And locals doubt if  the relatively newly formed branch of the Iraqi force has been effective in tackling drug gangs. 

“The border is our major issue, but the government can do very little. At the end of the day, the armed groups have the last say. No one is ready to risk their lives to fight against armed militias,” said an Iraqi border customs officer familiar with the smuggling routes on the border with Iran and Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t permitted to speak to the media. 

According to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, 5,300 people were arrested for drug-related crimes and hundreds of kilos of drugs were seized in the first quarter of this year alone. 

Meth is mainly dealt in the north-western edge of the city, in places like 5-Miles, a ghettoised neighbourhood named for its five-mile-long road that runs parallel to the train tracks and old canals.

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People once swam in the waterways here to escape Basra’s oppressive heat, but now they are filled with layers of trash, the water’s oily surface reflecting the hot sun. 5-Miles is Basra’s most troubled neighbourhood: It gets only a few hours of  electricity a day, and the average monthly income is just $200 (£170). 

PHOTO: MOHAMMED RASOOL

Dealers selling crystal meth and opioids use motorbikes to navigate 5-Miles’ narrow alleys and quickly disappear into crowds. A gram of crystal meth costs between 5,000-15,000 Iraqi dinar ($3-10, £4-8, €5-10), cheaper than buying a round of beers, and it can be delivered to any address.

Here, even alcohol is now more expensive and harder to come by than meth. The local government cancelled retailers’ alcohol licences over the years and practically banned liquor stores after 2017, claiming it was because shop owners were selling booze to minors. 

Now, Basrawis looking for a drink must head to the city’s Ottoman-era Old City, where bootleggers sell beer and spirits in black plastic bags from selected houses. Customers place their orders with young men who sit in the stairways in front of open doors and then run upstairs to get the goods.

 At night, the narrow, dark alleyways off the Old City’s main drag, Bashar Street, turn into a hub for everything the Shia local authorities don’t like. Rubbish bags filled with empty booze bottles stack up just a few metres away from religious banners reading “How can I drink while my brother, Hussain, is thirsty?”, a reference to the foremost Shia Imam.

Authorities have cracked down on alcohol over the years. FILE PHOTO: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the alcohol prohibition, bored young people with nothing to do looking for a break from the long hot days call their alcohol dealers or head out to deliver black plastic bags filled with booze. Just 100 metres from a police station, you can get chilled beers and locally made spirits for three times the average market price. 

Groups of people hang around near the water on weekends to avoid the heavy traffic and the constant sound of construction as the city prepares to host the 25th version of the Arabian Gulf Cup, a football tournament, in January next year. A $550 million stadium was finished in 2013, a major project that the local government takes pride in despite criticism of the huge expense.

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The “ship graveyard” on the southern-east edge of the town, where the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers pour into the Persian Gulf, is a popular place for drinkers to go. People sit next to piles of abandoned vessels, from huge transport ships to little wooden fishing boats, pulling beers out of plastic bags. 

Notorious locally made whiskey called “Daesh,” a sour, metallic-tasting beverage, is a favourite of those who want something quick. It earned its name because it’s made in the former ISIS town of Kirkuk and also because of the heavy hangovers it delivers. 

“There is something wrong going on inside that can. It is not whiskey,” a Karrar resident said while drinking a cold beer. He declined to give his name. 

People hang out here until midnight before being sent home by police, who track down motorbike riders and limit their movement around the poor neighbourhoods. 

Cops target drivers on the pretext that motorbikes and motor rickshaws ruin the city's image and cause bad traffic for visitors, but really it’s to crack down on drug and alcohol dealers.

The security forces also inquire about the marital status of young couples.

“Life is tough for the kids growing up around here. Things change fast, and it is more likely to be for the worse,” said Ibrahim, the recovered meth user who started taking the drug while working in construction and later began selling with two friends. 

“The feeling of being invincible and the immense energy was really good, but soon the trouble followed,” he said.

“We started to make a decent amount of money. We could rent a house, and we bought a gun. It might have been the effect of the drug. Otherwise, none of us was into playing little mafia games.

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“The sales keep coming in, and our supplier kept us going even if we screwed up for a week,” added Ibrahim.

The only rehab clinic in Basra opened two years ago in response to the rising number of users. It’s a 2,000-square-metre area behind Fayha hospital’s main building, surrounded by tall walls topped with barbed wire. Around 2,600 patients, all with addiction problems, have been treated here since the government-funded clinic opened, in 2018.

Police stand behind the large metal door, which makes it look more like a jail than a rehab centre, even though those being treated here come willingly or are referred by their families and treated free of charge. The treatment methods for the 30 current patients are like something out of a Victorian-era asylum. 

“We shave their heads first,” said Kadhim Khayrallah, the director of the clinic. “It makes them shy to go outside for a while, which is something I advise the family of the patients to continue with, because drugs come from bad companions,” he told VICE World News during an interview in the clinic’s main office. 

“The system here is strict, but that is the only effective way to build willpower to overcome the drug. They wake up early in the morning, they do sport, therapy, breakfast, and then meet their families, and then again do sports before we lock them up again for the night,” said Khayrallah. 

“I like it here so much that I don’t want to go home,” said a young patient, who was admitted 20 days earlier, and was lying on a bed in the clinic’s main ward. 

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“At least we get 24/7 electricity and air conditioning. That wouldn’t be possible in my own home,” he added, before five other patients burst out laughing.

Basra's port location made it perfect for smuggling meth. PHOTO: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Drug users who are caught by the police don’t end up at the Fayha clinic. Instead, they are processed at a gritty detention centre in Qibla neighbourhood. 

Many people spend up to six months of pre-trial detention here before a court makes a decision on their case. The three halls of overcrowded cells have gained notoriety for the terrible conditions, with inmates sleeping in three-hour shifts because there isn’t enough space for everyone to lie down. 

Every Saturday, hundreds of men and women line up under the shade outside the centre to get a pass to visit their sons and brothers for five minutes. Families bring favourite foods, fruit, and clothes for their loved ones inside.  

“I made my son his favourite soup and fresh-baked flatbread with roasted sesame seeds. He got sentenced to ten years for dealing,” Um Abbas, a frustrated mother, tells VICE World News. She is sitting on the pavement, clad in a black abaya, her sunburnt cheeks bulging from her tightly tied headscarf. 

“I don’t want him to be transferred to the big prison. They said he was a dealer, but the lawyer was a son of a bitch. I gave him ten million Iraqi dinars ($7,000), and he didn’t even appear in court. We even tried the tribal settlement, but it did not work out,” she said. 

In the absence of proper policing and rehabilitation, Basra’s tribal leaders have filled the void. They deal with the lion’s share of sorting out social and criminal issues in the city, stepping into the power vacuum left by Iraq’s national and local governments, which have been weakened by corruption and political deadlock. 

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“There is a sad reality in today’s Iraq, that the state is a bit like a ghost, and we have had to step in using the traditional ways to avoid chaos in society,” said Sheikh Ali al-Aliyawi of the Al Bu Ali tribe, one of the major tribes in the city. He spoke to VICE World News from an opulent room in his house decked out with golden furniture.

Shia sectarianism has become a prominent part of life in Basra. PHOTO: HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images

“As leaders of the community, when it comes to drugs, we have all agreed to go in one direction, which is that we will not support or back anyone who is troubled by such poison,” he said, waving his turtle-shaped, silver prayer beads and smoothing his long white robe.

“The tribal set-up and gatherings follow the same way of courts and investigate every detail. When it comes to drugs, we have made it clear that anyone troubled with this poison will be renounced and will not get any support from their tribes.”

According to Mustafa Hassan and Munis Abdulrazzaq, two young lawyers running a practice a few blocks away from the Qibla detention centre, the use of force and torture is a go-to for local police officers when dealing with drug suspects.

“Ten out of ten drug users face the threat of torture and forced confession when they are arrested, which is, unfortunately, the easy way police officers get more information on the distribution networks and capture bigger targets,” said Hassan.

“Medical care and rehabilitation centres are the solutions to the meth issue. However, the Iraqi system’s lack of experience with this kind of crisis means we are getting overcrowded prisons, and innocent and vulnerable people sentenced to long prison sentences based on forced confessions,” he said. 

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Abdulrazzaq added: “The other issue is that in our society, people do not know that lawyers can help them. The officers tell the suspects lawyers are useless and co-operating with the police is the only way out.”

photo: mohammed rasool

Ibrahim, the construction site worker who managed to get clean 18 months ago, went straight after sobering run-ins with Basra’s police.

“Once, I got caught with over ten grams of crystal, some pills and a pistol,” he said. “It was the longest 15 minutes in my life while I waited for them to do something to me, but in the end, I offered my pistol to the police guy, and he let me go,” he said.

“I just stopped one day. I knew the only way out was to lock myself up, and I didn’t leave the house for eight months. By the time I went out for the first time, the pandemic lockdowns had started, and I didn’t know why people were wearing a mask,” said Ibrahim. 

A dedicated Shia Muslim, Ibrahim is at a Hussainiya, the same one he attends every night at a local spot with dozens of his friends.

“One of my friends got caught for possession a few months after I went into isolation. He spent a year in jail and was roughed up by the experience when I saw him last. The other guy went on to do bigger business and got 10 years in prison,” said Ibrahim. 

“I found my way out, and I got back on the path of Imam Hussein,” he said. Around him, young men swayed and sweated, chanting the imam’s name, before heading back out into the hot, dark night.

As long as militias continue to move product through the no man’s land between Iran and Iraq with impunity, and Iraqi efforts at policing and rehabilitation remain inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem, Basra’s meth issue is likely to grow.

For the city’s young people, there are not many options – pick up a Qu’ran, a gun, or a pipe.

Tagged:

CRYSTAL METH, iraq, narcotics, Iran, middle east, worldnews, shia

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