Friday, May 25, 2007

Opium in Iraq

When you think it can't get any worse...
From UK, The Independent:

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.

Iraq Slogger noted this article.

Last year I made note of an increased flow of opium from Afghanistan in the wake of the US invasion. Michael Yon put together a compelling report that was missed by most of the media. He stated clearly the unintended consequences of the Afghan invasion.

Nothing in the stars says Afghanistan must remain a narcotics and terrorism factory. The land has excellent agricultural opportunities, yet Western aid programs often refuse to help Afghan farmers with crops that will compete with domestic producers. Perhaps this makes sense on one level, but the end result is that it makes heroin production an attractive option. And diversifying Afghanistan’s agricultural economy won’t happen without substantial investments that go beyond educating farmers.


The tragedy of all this is that after our military won stunning victory after stunning victory in the early war — crushing and vanquishing the Taliban — instead of setting in to seal the victory, we squandered it and ran off to Iraq, and the Taliban revived and returned. At the current rate, we, along with the Brits, Aussies, Canadians, French, Germans, Italians, and all the rest who are there, will lose the war in Afghanistan. We must change course with great haste.

The alternative crops will help, and there are other ideas for alternative economies not mentioned here. Yet we are not taking the opium threat seriously, and so we are subsidizing the enemy. Western money will flow into Afghanistan no matter what, and we’ve seen what happens when we ignore where it goes.

Part of the problem is that established "legitimate" drug interests are not for whatever reasons interested in diverting these crops into legal channels where they can be better controlled. And the illegality of opium is directly responsible for it's profitability.

I am reposting here what I found last year. I now link to the Senlis Council, a European (French, already -- shudder...) think tank with some suggestions how Afghanistan's Opium production might be more constructively integrated into the world's need for pain-killers instead of illegal drug use. Without looking I can already predict that this is a notion that will be opposed by drug companies whose global empire of transnational economic influence considers think tank suggestions about as inviting as a puff of second-hand smoke.

Afghanistan faces a reconstruction crisis of an unprecedented scale.
The illegal opium economy lies at the nexus of an extreme level of poverty and escalating violence, particularly in the southern part of the country. The US-led International Community has failed to unlock Afghanistan reconstruction crisis with an over-emphasis on aggressive counter narcotics strategies such as poppy crop eradication. The country’s share of opium production remains unchanged at 87 per cent of the world total, with 85 per cent of heroin consumed in Europe originating from Afghanistan. At the same time, however, opium poppy is the traditional crop and the raw material for essential medicines such as morphine and codeine.

(More at the link.)

Compared with Afghanistan I imagine Iraq's opium production is a drop in the bucket. nevertheless, it is yet another unintended consequence of this war.

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