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Iran: Village Guards Receive Arms To Battle Drug Smugglers

By William Samii/Charles Recknagel

Iran is arming villagers in its eastern border regions to help battle drug smuggling from Afghanistan. The move comes as some officials have suggested that the smugglers are trying to win hearts and minds in the countryside by playing on local grievances. RFE/RL regional analyst William Samii and correspondent Charles Recknagel look at the developments.

Prague, 21 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For years, Iran's drug war along its eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan has followed the classic cat-and-mouse pattern of a police force trying to catch highly mobile criminals.

The Iranian security forces patrol the rugged border area in hopes of swooping down on traffickers who use trucks, motorcycles or even camels to try to speed or sneak their drug shipments past them.

But if such tactics resemble drug operations anywhere in the world, the numbers of casualties on both the government's and the smugglers' sides amount to those of a small-scale guerilla war. Over the last decade, more than 3,000 Iranian security officers have been killed, plus at least as many drug traffickers.

Nor does the fighting show any signs of diminishing. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari recently told Iran's parliament that security forces killed 360 Afghan drug smugglers during the last six months and arrested another 4,000.

As the casualties have mounted, so have the numbers of security forces deployed in the border regions. They now include tens of thousands of soldiers from the regular military and the elite Revolutionary Guard, as well as members of the paramilitary Basij militia. More and more, these troops are being used to conduct massive ground sweeps to route smugglers from bases in Iran as well as interdict their drug shipments.

The smugglers have fought back by taking local hostages to protect themselves from police attack and to force villagers to give them shelter, food and money. Sometimes the numbers of people kidnapped are counted in dozens. The Iranian press reported last month that security forces in eastern Khorasan province killed 90 of what it called "Afghan bandits" and freed some 60 hostages.

Tehran has recently announced it will further escalate its efforts by also training and arming villagers to guard their home areas and take part in local military operations. Last month, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard in Khorasan province, Brigadier General Akbar Ebrzhimzadeh, said 800,000 Basij members have been trained for duties along the eastern borders. The trainees are primarily local inhabitants who have received weapons and rudimentary small arms instruction.

The formation of village-guard units comes amid reports that some security force commanders are unhappy about the level of cooperation they are receiving from local inhabitants. Hojatoleslam Qolam Heidar Heidari, a police political commissar based in Birjand, in Khorasan, said last month that lack of sufficient cooperation form local people often leads to the failure of security operations and even the deaths of security force members.

RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siavash Ardalan recently spoke by telephone with media representatives in Khorasan province to assess the mood there toward the drug war. Kazem Khoshniat, a journalist in the city of Kashmar, said people have hesitated to cooperate with security forces in the past but that is now changing.

"In the last few years, because operations took place with few visible results, people were skeptical. People were not very cooperative with security forces because they didn't think they were serious, due to the inadequate operations."

Khoshniat continued:

"But now people cooperate with the security forces and think they're serious, so the people have rolled up their sleeves and lend local knowledge. [So] day by day there is greater success."

With villagers now being recruited into the anti-drug war, Tehran appears to have decided to combat directly any efforts by Afghan smugglers and local gangs to win hearts and minds in the countryside. Iranian officials have worried the smugglers could seek to do so by playing on ethnic and religious differences in border regions such as Sistan va Baluchistan, where the majority Baluchi population is Sunni Muslim.

Iranian Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi alluded to just those fears during a trip to Sistan va Baluchistan last month. He warned listeners against efforts to undermine unity between local Sunni and Shiite Muslims but provided no details.

Others have warned that criminal gangs could build on local frustration over the region's poor economy. Mohammad Kianush-Rad, a member of the parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee, has blamed crime in the region on unemployment and drought-related crop failures.

Journalist Khoshniat told RFE/RL that Tehran's stepped-up operations are now reassuring many local people that insecurity in the countryside will come to an end.

"People were afraid to go out to their farms and go about their business. After these operations, a substantial state of peace in the area exists. People feel personally and mentally secure."

But there are many in Iran who feel the government remains far from winning the drug war. Iran's conservative press regularly calls for bigger military deployments along the border and for firing squads, rather than prison, for major drug smugglers.

The conservative papers have also called for more investment in constructing barriers along the eastern borders to detect traffickers or to channel them into using routes where they can more easily be intercepted.

Meanwhile, the security forces' success rate in seizing Afghan opium and heroin entering Iran is about 17 percent, according to UN drug control statistics.

That is high by international standards, where a 10 percent seizure rate is the norm. But it still means that the vast majority of smuggled drugs do get to market, and that the smugglers have little reason to abandon their lucrative profession anytime soon.