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A risky racket for Iraqi smugglers

June 29, 2008|Asso Ahmed | Special to The Times

ON THE IRAN-IRAQ BORDER — They are known as the "men of the night."

The rugged group sits in front of a liquor store in the northern foothills of Iraq, swapping stories and glasses of whiskey as their horses munch nearby. As dusk approaches, they begin strapping heavy cartons onto their animals for the long journey ahead.

Their cargo: bottles of vodka and Scotch destined for Iran.

Trade has flourished between the two regions for centuries. Some of it is legitimate, some of it not. In the ethnic Kurdish enclaves on either side of the border, many livelihoods are built on the illicit flow of alcohol, cigarettes and other contraband into Iran.

The profession is fraught with danger. The smugglers travel along narrow paths riddled with land mines from the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. Many have been maimed or killed by explosions, they say.

Sometimes, they say, Iranian border guards can be persuaded to let them pass for hefty bribes. But often they will shoot at the smugglers and their animals.

The border guards had killed at least one smuggler and 10 horses in the last 10 days, said Paiman Mahmoodi, an Iranian Kurd and father of three.

Authorities in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq are reluctant to discuss the scale of the illicit trade, which is a sticking point in relations with the neighboring Islamic Republic. But the smugglers say about 200 horses laden with alcohol cross into Iran every night from this remote spot.

Each trip takes three days in each direction and earns the men no more than $70 or $80, smuggler Shehab Fizi said. But there are few other ways to earn a living in these impoverished villages.

Donkeys and mules could carry bigger loads, but Fizi said most of the men prefer the speed of horses. It improves the odds of escaping a police or military ambush.

"He is part of my life," Fizi said, planting a kiss on his stallion, Crazy Horse.

Fizi recalled an attack last year in which one of his friends was killed. "We ran away, but his horse stayed beside him until daylight," he said.

The men say they repay their horses' loyalty by giving them as much time as they can to rest up between trips -- and the occasional shot of whiskey to help them through a cold winter's night.

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