Trailing Iraq’s Cigarette Smugglers

Bandits, border guards and big profits

NIQASH’s correspondent follows the illegal nicotine trail, as he joins local smugglers taking cigarettes into Syria. Dodging border guards and bandits, he meets the locals risking their lives to deliver millions of profitable packs to smokers every day.

Several days ago, two soldiers and a member of the public were wounded and around 50 others arrested, following a clash between the Iraqi armed forces and militants. But these casualties and arrests were not the result of any “war against terror”. Instead it was to do with a war against one particular drug: nicotine. The violence had been between cigarette smugglers and military operating along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Gunmen apparently fired on the vehicle that the commander of the border guards’ regiment near Bi’r Qasim in western Ninawa province was travelling in. A member of the same patrol, Khaled Ahmad, reported that the group was on a mission to intercept smugglers ferrying goods into Syria.

“We have fought many battles with smugglers who outnumbered us and were better armed,” Ahmad said. “They carry machine guns and binoculars and their trucks are escorted by 4WD vehicles until they get to the border of Syria and Iraq.”

“Smuggling cigarettes is a profitable business,” Mosul stock market trader Hamed al-Jibouri told NIQASH; deals between cigarette traders are often done in Mosul’s local stock market with brokers playing a major role in the transactions and negotiations. “Cigarettes are imported legally from Turkey and Jordan, then brought in through Erbil and Anbar by influential Mosul merchants.”

Turkey and Jordan, from where many of the cigarettes originally come, also border on Syria, but these are far harder to cross illicitly. Dozens of warehouses receive millions of cigarettes every day. A master case costs between US$200 and US$300 – each master case contains 50 cartons of cigarettes, which in turn contains 10 packs of cigarettes each. Each master case contains 10,000 cigarettes.

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