Drug and Alcohol Abuse Growing in Iraqi Forces

 
A growing number of Iraqi security force members are becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol, which has led to concerns about a significant addiction problem among the country’s armed services as the insurgency remains a potent force and American troops prepare to depart at the end of next year.
 
In some regions of Iraq, military and police officials say, as many as 50 percent of their colleagues, including high-ranking officers, use drugs or alcohol while on duty. Those numbers, if correct, would cast doubt on the readiness of Iraqi forces to defend the country without American troop support. The United States has spent more than $22 billion training and equipping Iraqi security forces since 2004, and the American military has repeatedly said Iraq’s Army and police are capable of fending off armed insurgent groups.
 
While there is no way to know the exact number of drug- and alcohol-dependent members among Iraq’s 675,000-member security force, interviews with dozens of soldiers, police officers, political leaders, health officials, pharmacists and drug dealers around the country indicate that drug and alcohol use among the police and the military has become increasingly common and appears to have grown significantly during the past year or so.
 
Those who admit to using drugs and alcohol on duty acknowledge that the substances lead to erratic behavior, but say long hours working at checkpoints, constant fear and witnessing the grisly deaths of colleagues make drugs and alcohol less a choice than a necessity. “Pills are cheaper than cigarettes and they make you more comfortable and relaxed,” said Nazhan al-Jibouri, a police officer in Nineveh Province in northern Iraq. “They help us forget that we are hungry, and they make it easier to deal with people. They encourage us during moments when we are facing death.”
 
Some senior police and army officers said that because drug abusers were typically among their most fearless fighters, they were loath to take disciplinary action against them.
 
Col. Muthana Mohammed, an army officer in Babil Province, in southern Iraq, said the problem had escalated in part because drug treatment was a rarity. “The percentage of the addicted among the police and army has increased because there’s no medical staff to help and there are no drug tests,” he said.
 
A spokesman for Iraq’s Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, denied that the military had a drug problem.
 
“This talk is exaggerated,” he said. “You can find one soldier or two on a brigade level, but I do not think it is something scary or popular, so it will not be a threat to our security forces. We have great intelligence systems in which one of our main duties is to follow the military’s rule breakers. We have medical staff concerned with the matter of drug users, and if medical tests prove drug use, we will take the harshest punishment against them.”
 
The Iraqi police would not comment. The American military referred questions about drug abuse to Iraqi security forces.
 
Health officials say that on-duty drug and alcohol use among security force members is part of a larger problem of drug abuse in Iraq, where addiction has spread amid three decades of war and economic hardship.
 
The problem has been exacerbated by the recent proliferation of powerful prescription medications — as well as of smuggled heroin, marijuana and hashish from Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Police and Iraqi Army officials in Diyala Province, on the Iranian border, say they believe insurgents have moved into drug smuggling to finance their activities.
 
Illegal drugs in Iraq are readily available in cafes, markets and on the street via dealers, including elderly women who sell pills hidden beneath their abayas.
 
Iraqi security force members acknowledge that habitual drug and alcohol use play a role in a general lack of discipline among Iraqi soldiers and police officers and may have contributed to several startling displays of recent violence.