BAGHDAD — 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. Among these are the fatal shooting of three colleagues by a police officer in Kirkuk, and the killing of at least eight soldiers and police officers at Baghdad checkpoints who were taken by surprise by far smaller bands of insurgents during brazen daylight raids.
Maj. Gen. Hazim al-Khazraji, general inspector of the Kirkuk Police Department in northern Iraq, said drug and alcohol consumption had multiplied among police officers seeking to ease the monotony, fatigue and danger of their jobs.
“The percentage of drug users and drunken police officers will grow as long as there are alerts and extra duty,” he said.
Jasim Harin, a soldier stationed in Baghdad, said he had used drugs — usually pills or marijuana — since 2005.
“It started during a time when we spent almost the entire month on duty,” he said. “We were always being targeted, and it was killing me. Drugs are the easiest way to run away.”
Iraqi pharmacists and health officials said medicines intended to treat ailments from epilepsy to depression and diarrhea to insomnia are either purchased without prescription or stolen from pharmacies and mental hospitals. Some pills provide a brief euphoria, while others lead to an intense high lasting as long as 24 hours.
Among the more popular pills are a potent form of Valium made in Iran and nicknamed “the bloody,” because of its red package; a pill called “Abu Hajib” or Father of the Eyebrow — because of its parallel squiggly lines — that packs a heroin-like punch; a pink pill nicknamed the “Lebanani” that produces feelings of bliss; amphetamines; muscle relaxants; and a variety of hallucinogens.
When those drugs are not readily available, security force members say they guzzle several bottles of cough syrup at a time or drink spirits, including a potent Iraqi version of arak made from fermented dates that goes by the slang name of “white.”
The units that appear to have the worst addiction problems appear to be those with the toughest jobs: those that staff checkpoints in tense cities like Samarra, Baquba, Baghdad and Mosul, and members of Iraq’s special forces and rapid deployment teams, which perform a majority of the country’s antiterrorism work.
At a Baghdad checkpoint on a recent night, a police officer asked a driver whether he had any “white.” When he was told no, the officer suggested that the driver bring him some the next time he came through.
Khalid al-Muhamadawi, 29, said he began selling drugs to soldiers and police officers in Baghdad after a recent arrest. Since then, he said, business has been brisk.
“One day they searched me and found drugs inside my bag, so they detained me,” he said. “They said, ‘Hey, why don’t you become our friend and we’ll become your friend?’ I agreed and after that I have become their dearest friend, because I provide them with relaxing pills.”
Some cities have recently established drug enforcement squads, including Falluja, in western Iraq.
The squad recently arrested a man who possessed about 200,000 pills, said Maj. Faisal al-Issawi, its head.
“He came from the southern provinces and planned to give the pills free to security force members because he wanted them to become addicted,” Major Issawi said. “Then he planned to start charging them.”
Reporting was contributed by Muhammed al-Obaidi and Yasir Ghazi in Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times in the Iraqi provinces of Anbar, Babil, Baghdad, Basra, Diyala, Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salahuddin.