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Iraq battles two killer epidemics at once: Crystal meth and Covid-19

Baghdad (CNN) For nearly a month, Khaled lay on a threadbare mattress, writhing in pain.

Until 2014, he worked as a security contractor in northern Iraq. When ISIS swept through the area, he lost his job and spiraled into a depression. Now in a prison cell, he has just recovered from withdrawal symptoms after years of crystal meth abuse.

"The situation in the country was rough. You go and try to find work, but there was no work," he says. "Once, twice and I was hooked (on crystal meth). I was trapped. I couldn't get out."

The woman he says was the love of his life left him.

Different versions of this story echo in the cells of the anti-drug police department prison in Baghdad's western district. The mix of drug users and dealers who we spoke to say Iraq's socioeconomic decay triggered their cycles of abuse. The prison cells hold double the number of men the space was intended for.

Throughout this report, Iraq's drug users have been identified by pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

Khaled is pictured in a cell at a western Baghdad prison where he is serving a one year sentence for using crystal meth.

"We don't have the capacity," Col Mohammed Alwan, the commander of the drug unit in this part of the capital says. "Sometimes we have to slow down work because we don't have the capacity to keep detainees and prisoners, especially not with the pandemic."

He estimates that 10% of the population in his area of operations is addicted to drugs, overwhelmingly to crystal meth.

Multiple officials told CNN that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the drug trade in Iraq.

Years of war severely fractured the Iraqi state, with various powerful armed forces operating outside of government control. Corruption is rampant, and the economy, for most Iraqis, is on a seemingly endless downward cycle.

Iraqi youth struggle to find jobs, regardless of their education levels. In 2020, the pandemic dealt a blow to an already fragile economy. According to a fall 2020 World Bank report, millions of Iraqis are expected to sink into poverty due to the twin shocks of the Covid-19 and a global collapse in the price of oil, which fuels Iraq's economy.

Legions of disenchanted youth seeking to escape hard realities began to swell, and the drug trade thrived.

"Drug dealers have their ways, they usually give drugs for free to poor, unemployed people to lure them until they get addicted," General Amad Hussein with the anti-drug police explains as he hands out flyers with a hotline number in an impoverished Baghdad neighborhood.

"That person then starts stealing money to pay for it or they even turn this person into a distributor."

General Amad Hussein spreads on-the-ground awareness about drug abuse in Baghdad's poorer neighborhoods.

Under the rule of former president and dictator Saddam Hussein, the maximum punishment for drug use was death. That draconian legislation drove the trade deep underground and kept the streets largely clean.

In addition to unleashing chaos in Iraq, the 2003 US invasion that deposed the country's brutal former ruler also weakened its borders, bolstering the drug trade.

Officials here say trafficking peaked in 2014 with the arrival of ISIS and Captagon, an amphetamine popular among the group's fighters, which came to Iraq from Syria.

But a US-led coalition campaign against ISIS led to a beefed up security presence along the Iraqi-Syrian border. The trade then shifted to Iraq's predominantly Shia south and its porous frontier with Iran.

The vast majority of crystal meth, which makes up about 60% of Iraq's drug trade, flows from that border area, senior anti-drug officials tell CNN.

"Neighboring countries are using this to destroy Iraqi society, the Iraqi economy," Col. Alwan alleges. "We established several channels with the Iranian side to deal with this issue but we haven't reached an agreement to tackle it."

The Iranian foreign ministry has not responded to CNN's request for comment on cross-border smuggling operations.

The anti-drug unit, undermanned and underfunded, has yet to capture any major traders anywhere in the country, despite nationwide raids. Officials say the trade's beneficiaries range from Sunni extremist groups and Iran-backed Shia militias to criminal gangs.

Iraq's prisons for drug offenders have double the number of inmates the facilities were intended for. CNN has blurred the inmates' faces to protect their identities.

Thuraya was arrested alongside her husband inside a house where she was dealing. They were in possession of 300 grams of crystal meth, with a street value of around $18,000. Also detained in the raid was someone Thuraya refers to as her "friend," an intermediary who made regular runs to the Iranian border to pick up the drug from a supplier.

Sitting in a women's prison in Baghdad, she says she has only a vague notion of the shadowy supply chain at the border. They received the crystal meth "from the big dealers," she continues, adding that she has no information about their names and backgrounds.

Thuraya would help smuggle it through checkpoints in the cities where the trio operated, delivering it to other dealers or selling it themselves.

The prison we meet her in is specifically for women who are involved with drugs or prostitution. She says her husband introduced her to crystal meth before they were married, when he saw that she had fallen into a depression. At the time, her previous marriage had just failed and she was forcibly estranged from her children.

"As a woman, it's easy to get through checkpoints. We're not searched. I would hide it all over my body," says Thuraya, motioning towards her chest, hips and legs under her long black abaya.

Over the years, various insurgent groups and militias have used women to smuggle explosives and weapons, in order to elude the radar of security forces. Recently, drug networks have upped their recruitment of women to facilitate trafficking, according to security officials.

"For women, working in the drug trade is easier than it is for men, they can work undercover, they don't bring a lot of attention to themselves," Col Alwan says, pulling out his phone to show us pictures of two women his unit captured a few days prior. They stand behind a small table lined with crystal meth, pipes, and the rest of the stash they were found with.

"We don't have a female force, one that can search women," he adds, pointing to one of the photographs. "This one told us she goes with a man to a rented place and tells him that if you want to have sex with me you have to buy drugs or take drugs."

Ensnared in a web of addiction, users struggle to navigate a way out. A recent law reform has lifted legal penalties for users who seek help, but many are unaware of that, according to security officials.

Without coming forward, dealers who are caught are jailed for up to 15 years. Users -- no matter the drug -- serve a yearlong sentence.

Enass Kareem, a petite dark-haired woman, scrolls through her phone reading out messages from an Iraqi drug awareness Facebook page.

"I implore you; I want to be treated. I am fifteen years old from Basra, please treat me like your brother."

Enass Kareem, right, an activist for anti-drug awareness, canvasses a neighborhood with flyers in central Baghdad.

About a year ago, Enass, a middle school biology teacher, noticed that some of her students were using.

"They were skipping classes and when they attended, they weren't focused," she explains. "I realized other signs like in their teeth, in their aggressive responses."

She was reluctant to inform the school administration about the suspected users, fearing they would be expelled. Instead, she quietly reached out to their parents and got them into rehab.

"I started a Facebook page to raise awareness about drugs and the options for addicts." She explains.

People began to send her messages, asking for help for themselves, for their loved ones, for their friends.

"Through my contacts with users, I realized that one of the biggest reasons is idle time. Most of the users don't have work. Even those with university degrees can't get work," she says.

She compares drugs to a form of terrorism, one that can easily escape scrutiny as it quietly enters homes, schools and universities.

"It's the destruction of a society through drugs. It destroys people psychologically, crime rises, families get torn apart," she says. "In the future, the impact of this is going to be severe."

She works closely with the anti-drug department, which would also prefer to have addicts recover than end up behind bars.

Beds are full at a rehab center in Baghdad.

The rehab bloc of Baghdad's Ibn Rushd mental health center is full; doctors and nurses have to cycle out patients faster than they would like to.

Abdulkarim's eyes are glossy, his teeth and his jaw are aching, he says; his brain feels like it might explode. He sits on one of the rickety beds rocking slightly back and forth.

"I'm going to get through this," he promises the nurse checking in on him. He's only been here for three days; the crystal meth cravings coursing through his body seem overwhelming.

Abdulkarim was a day laborer. He'd hang out in the streets with the other unemployed, angry and dejected.

"They got me into this. To forget, to escape," he recalls. "Unemployment drove us into this. And the situation in Iraq, the miserable situation."

The country is at war, anti-drug officials say, a war they fear they are losing.

"The era of traditional warfare with two armies facing each other is over," General Hussein says. "The enemies of this country are going to do all that they can to prevent us from developing and that's a form of warfare. They want to destroy the core of our society, our youth."

Aqeel Najm contributed to this report from Baghdad.