The cultivation of opium poppies whose product is turned into heroin is spreading rapidly across Iraq as farmers find they can no longer make a living through growing traditional crops.
Afghan with experience in planting poppies have been helping farmers switch to producing opium in fertile parts of Diyala province, once famous for its oranges and pomegranates, north- east of Baghdad.
At a heavily guarded farm near the town of Buhriz, south of the provincial capital Baquba, poppies are grown between the orange trees in order to hide them, according to a local source.
The shift by Iraqi farmers to producing opium was first revealed by The Independent last May and is a very recent development. The first poppy fields, funded by drug smugglers who previously supplied Saudi Arabia and the Gulf with heroin from Afghanistan, were close to the city of Diwaniyah in southern Iraq. The growing of poppies has now spread to Diyala, which is one of the places in Iraq where al-Qa’ida is still resisting US and Iraqi government forces. It is also deeply divided between Sunni, Shia and Kurd and the extreme violence means that local security men have little time to deal with the drugs trade. The speed with which farmers are turning to poppies is confirmed by the Iraqi news agency al-Malaf Press, which says that opium is now being produced around the towns of Khalis, Sa’adiya, Dain’ya and south of Baladruz, pointing out that these are all areas where al-Qa’ida is strong.
The move of local warlords, both Sunni and Shia, into opium farming is a menacing development in Iraq, where local political leaders are often allied to gangsters. The theft of fuel, smuggling and control of government facilities such as ports means that gangs are often very rich. It is they, rather than impoverished farmers, who have taken the lead in financing and organising opium production in Iraq.
Initial planting in fertile land west and south of Diwaniya around the towns of Ash Shamiyah, al-Ghammas and Shinafiyah were said to have faced problems because of the extreme heat and humidity. Al-Malaf Press says that it has learnt that the experiments with opium poppy-growing in Diyala have been successful.
Although opium has not been grown in many of these areas in Iraq in recent history, some of the earliest written references to opium come from ancient Iraq. It was known to the ancient Sumerians as early as 3400BC as the “Hul Gil” or “joy plant” and there are mentions of it on clay tablets found in excavations at the city of Nippur just east of Diwaniyah.
Warlords growing opium. If this is accurate, its just another way Iraq is following in the Afghanistan mold.