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Drug Problems, Crowded Jails in Iraqi City


A man shows henna plants at his shop in Basra, Iraq March 9, 2019. Picture taken March 9, 2019. (REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani)
Drug Problems, Crowded Jails in Iraqi City
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The Iraqi city of Basra is struggling to deal with a growing problem: illegal drugs.

The drug problem has led to overcrowded prisons and increased pressure on police to find the drugs and the people who use them. It comes just months after violent protests over poor government services.

Once known as the Venice of the East, Basra city lacks clean water and does not have enough electricity to power air conditioning equipment. Unemployment is widespread, especially among young people, in the city that has a population of around 4 million people.

The number of drug arrests has risen since 2015, notes Shaker Aziz, a member of the Basra police narcotics force. By March, police had seized 15 kilograms of illegal drugs this year. Some 50 to 60 people are arrested each week on drug-related crimes, compared to more than 1,000 all last year, he added.

Major Aziz told the Reuters news agency that drugs have spread "because the youth are lost, they have no money, they are sick of life." He added that prison officials tell the police: "Ninety percent of inmates are convicted on drug charges, stop sending them."

"So we keep them here,” Aziz said, speaking about small, overcrowded holding cells.

In 2017, Iraq declared victory in the four-year war against the self-declared Islamic State, or IS, group. The city of Basra never fell to IS militants.

The situation in the prisons is evidence of the difference between the wealth Basra province produces and its poor living conditions. Basra's oil industry is responsible for over 90 percent of the state's revenues.

Local health officials promised to reopen and improve 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, the police narcotics officer.

Asked about the situation, the state-owned Basra Oil Company said it has offered to donate $5 million for a drug treatment center.

Regional drug trade

A police official, Bassem Ghanem, said methamphetamine, known popularly as crystal meth, is the most widespread drug. Opium, cannabis and pills are also commonly used.

Basra’s police force says 97 percent of drug users arrested in 2018 were unemployed, and more than two thirds were 25 years of age or younger.

All of the drugs come from other countries, 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. The Iranian government has denied his claim.

Even so, preventing drug trafficking is a serious problem for Iran. It borders Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium producer, and Pakistan, a major transit country for drugs.

I'm John Russell.

Ahmed Aboulenein reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

narcotics – n. pain-reducing medicines

inmate – n. a person who is kept in a prison or mental hospital

convict – v. to prove that someone is guilty of a crime in a court of law

cell n. a small, single room usually for one person

revenuen. the amount of money produced; the money returned by an investment

rehabilitation n. the act of returning to good health

afford – v. to be able to pay the cost of

transit – n. the act of moving people or things from one place to another

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