The sanctions created a well-developed smuggling network that continued to function after Hussein's fall. Here in southern Iraq, much of the smuggling is done via sea. In northern and central Iraq, fuel is usually smuggled out in tanks hidden in the hundreds of trucks that daily cross the borders with Jordan and Turkey.
Although ordinary fishermen and truckers engage in small-scale smuggling, Iraqi officials fear that organized crime or even insurgent groups now control large smuggling rings.
"Even the state security forces are afraid of the oil mafia," said Aboud Kareem Abass, an engineer and anti-corruption activist.
The Iraqi efforts to combat the problem are clear enough here in the Shatt al Arab, a legendary waterway translated as "Stream of the Arabs."
Formed where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, the 120-mile-long river flows into the Persian Gulf, Iraq's only access to the sea. It has been a cause of conflict for hundreds of years, most recently during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. For much of that time, smugglers have plied its waters to transport a wide variety of goods, including sheep and whiskey.
Much of the responsibility for stopping the smuggling along this section of the river half an hour outside the city of Basra now falls to Mohanned Abdul-Jalil, a captain in the newly formed Iraqi coast guard.
A recent trip down the river on a speedboat with bulletproof sides showed the difficulty of fighting smuggling.
Boats of all sizes filled the waterway, from 300-foot-long cargo ships loaded with electronic goods to simple wooden launches with locals collecting marsh grass for homes and livestock.
Narrow channels lined with tall marsh grasses provided access routes and hiding places. The steep banks made it easy for fuel trucks to deposit their loads into waiting skiffs.
Abdul-Jalil's unit has captured at least 40 smuggling boats since it began operations in August 2004. Some of the rusting hulks are tied up outside his office, many still filled with diesel.
He acknowledged that smuggling continued, but said it had decreased. His men used to seize boats with up to 300 tons of fuel, he said, but now most seizures are less than 30 tons.
"Our patrols are continuous," said Abdul-Jalil, whose equipment was provided by coalition forces. "We go 24 hours now."
The effort has gratified Capt. Adnan Samer, who runs the scruffy commercial port where Abdul-Jalil's unit is based.
Samer is the voice of a hopeful Iraq. The crackdown on smuggling, he said, is only one step in a long process.
"We are running and jumping," Samer said. "We lost so many years."