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Iraqi Border Town Struggles With Violence, Drugs and Little Government Help 


The daily attacks in Iraq's cities often overshadow the problems in smaller towns. But as hundreds-of-thousands of Iraqis flee Baghdad and other major cities, small town officials face growing problems. VOA's Barry Newhouse recently visited the town of Khanaqin on Iraq's border with Iran, where local officials are trying to cope with sectarian violence, a stagnant economy, booming drug trafficking and a massive influx of new arrivals.

The town of Khanaqin straddles an ancient trade route between Iraq and Iran, and the city remains a hub for cross-border commerce. Residents have historically been Shi'ite Kurds, but under Saddam Hussein's decades-long Arabization campaign, hundreds-of-thousands fled to Iran, or other parts of Iraq, as Arabs were moved into the oil-rich city.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Kurds who had been refugees in Iran returned, shifting the town's demographics yet again. Now, more Shi'ite Kurds fleeing sectarian violence in Baghdad and other cities continue to arrive.

Khanaqin's governor, Muhammad Amin Hassan Hussein, says, in recent years, the population has grown from fewer than 50,000 people before the invasion, to more than 250,000 today.

He says officials face many problems with security, with the economy and with administrative gridlock. He also says there are some people in neighboring villages who plot against the local government and carry out attacks.

Khanaqin lies on the northeastern edge of Iraq's violent Arab-majority Diyala province. Like many towns and cities across Iraq, the town is becoming ethnically and religiously homogenized, as minorities flee to places where they will not be singled out for attacks.

Governor Hussein says he struggles to help even those families who want official documents to legally move.

Hussein says that he was recently asked to write permits for 60 Arab families, who want to leave town, and for 60 Kurdish families who want to come to Khanaqin. He says his office does not even have the money to buy the necessary stationery.

The governor says the Kurdish-majority town receives no support from the Arab-majority Diyala regional government, nor from the central government in Baghdad.

Khanaqin and other towns near Iraq's northern Kurdistan region will hold a referendum later this year to decide if they will join the Kurdistan regional government authority. The referendum has further inflamed tensions, as Arabs and other ethnic groups accuse Kurds of pursuing policies to influence the vote.

Khanaqin sits just a few kilometers from a border crossing checkpoint with Iran, and the border traffic helped support the local economy. But the Iraqi government recently closed the Munthariya checkpoint to all traffic, except trucks carrying desperately needed fuel from Iran.

While Khanaqin's proximity to Iran helps fuel its economy, locals say it also contributes to a growing drug problem. Illegal drugs are cheap here, and many blame Iranian traffickers.

At the Munthariya checkpoint, Iraqi Army General Salman Muhammed Dumar says, while his forces have not found any illegal arms shipments here, they do find drugs.

"We catch drugs on some people," he says. "We also find tablets - these kinds of drugs. We send the traffickers to court." The general also says his forces have confiscated more than 400 Motorola radios used for military-style communications.

As Khanaqin officials struggle with the town's current problems, many of the youth are pessimistic about their future here.

Mohammed is an 18-year-old student who earns $200 a month as a guard for a local Kurdish political party. He describes himself as Khanaqin's biggest fan of American hip hop and rap music.

"Everyday, everyday I try to learn American language," he says. "I read the dictionary - everything. I hear [listen to] hip hop to study. In Khanaqin, only I listen to hip hop, because it's my life. You know? It takes back my life."

Muhammed, who says his friends call him by his rap name - M2 - says he identifies with the violent lyrics in rap music. Standing in a dusty parking lot in the middle of Khanaqin with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, he says the music reminds him of his life.

As other guards gather around M2's cell phone and listen to his favorite rap songs, he says he wants to go to America some day, and drive around in a 1969 Chevy Malibu with a gold chain around his neck. He wants to be a hip hop star.

But in Khanaqin, M2 says, each day is worse than the one before. He struggles to understand the killing on Iraq's streets. He says he cries every night - and he writes rap lyrics about his life.

M2 says, "Whenever you walk down the street, someone kidnaps you - and your family must pay for you. If 1,000 Iraqis are killed, they just lie in the streets. Every building is smashed. The thieves are trying to crush the country. Every car is a bomb. Be careful."