Iraq: opium economy takes hold in south

Farmers in southern Iraq are turning to opium cultivation for the first time, the Belfast Telegraph reports. Traditional rice farmers along the Euphrates, outside the southern city of Diwaniya, have now abandoned rice—for which the area is famous—in favor of poppies. The well-irrigated lands around the towns of Ash Shamiyah, al Ghammas and Ash Shinafiyah are controlled by Shi’ite militias and the government has little control there.

The Belfast Telegraph writes: “It is too dangerous for foreign journalists to visit Diwaniya but the shift to opium cultivation is attested by two students from there and a source in Basra familiar with the Iraqi drugs trade.”

While Iraq is a transit point for Afghan heroin, it has not been a mjor producer. However, opium was cultivated in Mesopotamia as early as 3400 BCE 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 in the southern cities of Diwaniya, Basra, Nassariyah, Kut over the past 10 days, mostly between the Sadr and Badr Shi’ite factions. In many, though not all, areas of southern Iraq, the latter group controls the police. The two groups are said to be in a battle for control of the opium trade.

The spark for the fighting in Diwaniya came on May 16, with the arrest of several members of the Mahdi Army, the Sadr militia. Other militiamen tried to rescue them and attacked the police, said by the Sadrists to be controlled by the Badr forces. US forces and Iraqi army troops were drawn into the fighting. Some 11 people, eight of them civilians, were killed on a single day. A US soldier was killed and two wounded in a Mahdi Army attack May 19. 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 May 21. The agreement calls for foreign forces to be kept out of the city.

Warns the Telegraph: “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.” And there could be a further loss of central control as British troops pull out of Basra, the region’s major city—although Diwaniya is in Qaddasiyah province, which was never under British control.

The Telegraph warns 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.” (Belfast Telegraph, May 23)

See our last posts on Iraq, Basra and Shi’ite factionalism.